Based on what we all saw in New Orleans, the time could come in the next week or so when the Giants are going to be confronted with some wonderfully difficult decisions about who gets to play ball with Daniel Jones.
The plan heading into this season was intriguing on paper and at times nauseating on the field. Three games in, all the high-priced talent and valuable draft capital was struggling to return from injuries and inactivity. So much of it came together in a 27-21 overtime victory over the Saints that it is fair to project a crowd gathering around the 24-year old Jones, a crowd of gifted playmakers all anxious for their opportunity to light it up.
In what alternate universe is this a thing? The Giants might actually have so many weapons on offense that highly capable players will be vying for game-day activations, with a weekly show-us-what-you-got competition in practice involving players accustomed to getting a uniform every Sunday.
“We have shown glimpses of what we can be as an offense throughout these first four games,’’ Jones said. “We were more consistent with it [in New Orleans]. We made a few more plays. We made the plays when they counted. I think that is the capability of this offense. We have got to keep doing it. It wasn’t perfect. There are things that we have to get better and clean up. We have the potential to make a lot of plays, and we have to keep doing it.”
Potential can be a dirty word when production is left behind. The grand plan for 2021 was to surround Jones with so much talent to throw to and hand the ball off to that he could showcase his extreme athletic ability and smarts without having the added pressure of overreaching.
Then the season started, and it was all on Jones. He had to throw it and run it and he was overextended. Free-agent additions Kenny Golladay and tight end Kyle Rudolph were limited coming off injuries. Rookie first-round pick Kadarius Toney got COVID then strained his hamstring in a bumpy NFL indoctrination. Saquon Barkley, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, was worked in slowly. Tight end Evan Engram hurt his calf and missed the first two games. John Ross hurt his hamstring and missed seven weeks of work, including the first three games.
This was not the arsenal Jones was promised. Golladay predicted the offense would be a work in progress, and he was proven correct. Nothing looked in sync. Concerns mounted that this approach was headed for another failed offensive product, factoring in the annual issues with an offensive line beset with injuries, creating a spinning turnstile of beefy newcomers asked to say hello and start blocking.
It did not all come together against the Saints as much as it revealed what might be attainable. Golladay for the first time looked more like the player the Giants signed to a $72 million contract. Toney for the first time put on display the start-and-stop dynamism that should make him a broken-tackle machine. Barkley scored on a 54-yard reception that featured his uncommon route-running prowess and turn-any-play-into-something-big capability. Rudolph broke open for a 20-yard catch on the left sideline to set up a third-quarter field goal. Engram did not do much, but he can be a useful safety-valve option. Ross, nearly a forgotten man stashed away on injured reserve, showed his speed as he ran past two defenders and hauled in a 52-yard touchdown pass the first time he touched the ball in a Giants uniform.
That Sterling Shepard — off to a flying start back in his favored slot role — and deep threat Darius Slayton each missed the game due to a strained hamstring magnifies the talent the Giants assembled for Jones. That he passed for a career-high 402 yards without those two targets is a sign that there is more to bite off this aerial bone.
When Shepard and Slayton return — possibly this week in Dallas, more likely the following week against the Rams — head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will be staring at Golladay, Toney, Shepard, Slayton and Ross as wide receiver options. These players are not special teams contributors. C.J. Board, another receiver, is the primary kickoff and punt returner. There likely will not be room for everyone on the active list.
File this under “Good problems to have.’’
More to take away from the Giants’ first victory of 2021:
Who were those guys?
For Giants fans, seeing their team lose back-to-back games on field goals as time expired was just more of the same, an indictment of a group that does not know how to win. On the outside, the two losses — 30-29 in Washington, 17-14 at home to the Falcons — revealed something different: a team not far away from claiming success.
“Give credit to New York,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They hung in there. Certainly, we didn’t feel like we came into this game that we were seeing an 0-3 team. We knew how well they played against Atlanta and Washington. Any time that you have a game that goes into overtime when you lead for most of the game and you lose, it’s frustrating.”
It’s a snap
Four defensive players were on the field for all 68 snaps: safeties Logan Ryan and Xavier McKinney, cornerback James Bradberry and inside linebacker Tae Crowder. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson would have played all 68, but he settled for 66 after he needed to come off briefly to check out his knee. On the line, Leonard Williams (62 snaps) was in for 91 percent of the plays on defense, a higher workload than usual. Three safeties was the predominant look: Julian Love played 47 snaps, mostly in the second half, as Jabrill Peppers was limited to only 19 snaps after tweaking his hamstring in the second quarter. Because of this, outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari was in for only 37 snaps, and streak of three consecutive games with a sack to start his NFL career ended.
The offensive line rotation is no more. All five starters played all 63 snaps. Nate Solder at right tackle did a commendable job on dangerous Cameron Jordan, who had no sacks and only one quarterback hit. On the other side, Tanoh Kpassagnon did even less (no sacks, no quarterback hits) against Andrew Thomas, who had his way at left tackle. Matt Skura made his Giants debut as the fourth starting left guard in four games. In his first NFL appearance at left guard (of his previous 51 NFL starts with the Ravens, 37 came at center, 12 at right guard and three as an extra tight end), the 28-year-old Skura did the job as a pass protector and was flagged for one penalty, a holding call late in the second quarter. It was the only penalty on the offensive line.
Golladay (92 percent of the snaps) and Barkley (89 percent) being eased in are things of the past.
This was the Giants’ first victory in New Orleans in 28 years. Of course, they do not make this trip very often: The Giants had lost their previous five games in the Big Easy.
Comeback? Did you say comeback? This was the first time in nine years the Giants won a game in which they trailed by 11 or more points in the fourth quarter. The last time they did it was Sept. 16, 2012, when they beat the Buccaneers, 41-34, after trailing 27-16. The Giants did not win any games in 2020 after trailing in the fourth quarter. This was their first since Sept. 22, 2019, in Daniel Jones’s first NFL start, when he rallied the Giants from a 31-25 deficit to win 32-31.
Call this the Eli Manning Effect. Manning could have saved himself several career interceptions if he was more judicious late in the first half of games or late in the second half of one-sided games. Manning never tried to protect his stats or his passer rating, and without hesitation fired low-percentage passes or Hail Marys attempting to get a score just before halftime. This is exactly what Jones did in New Orleans, and he was intercepted by safety Marcus Williams on a Hail Mary on the final play of the first half. It was the first interception for Jones after throwing 124 passes this season without one. Dating back to last season, Jones has only two interceptions in his last 331 pass attempts, covering more than 10 games.
This is not going to last long. Jones ran for 27 yards to increase his team-high season total to 188 rushing yards. Barkley ran for 52 yards and is at 186 rushing yards. The Giants want Barkley, not Jones, to lead the team in rushing, and the changing of the guard should come soon.
It is often when you least expect it. Graham Gano hit a Giants-record 37 consecutive field goals, dating back to last season, tying him with Jason Myers of the Seahawks for the fourth-longest streak in NFL history. Myers missed one last week. Gano missed one inside the perfect conditions of the Superdome from only 35 yards out.
Remember Aldrick Rosas? There are times Saints coach Sean Payton wishes he could forget him. The Giants thought they had a real find when Rosas made 32 of 33 field-goal attempts in 2018. He slumped in 2019 (12 of 17) and then was released in June 2020 after he was arrested in California on three misdemeanors after he was involved in a hit-and-run accident. Rosas kicked for the Jaguars in 2020, and is only 1 of 4 for the Saints this season. He missed on an ill-advised 58-yard attempt against the Giants. “At some point, we have to be able to kick a field goal,’’ Payton said. “Hindsight, I would have punted. I felt that way after he missed it. The next play they scored a touchdown.” Indeed, after Rosas was wide right from long distance in the second quarter, the Giants got the ball on their own 48-yard line. Taking over at midfield empowered the Giants to call a deep shot to Ross, who scored on a 52-yard hookup from Jones.