Pat Shurmur might as well have fired a starter’s pistol into the air on Tuesday to signal the beginning of a quarterback controversy that will last through Giants training camp and beyond.
His words had the same jolting effect. After he was asked if rookie quarterback Daniel Jones could beat out Eli Manning and be the opening day starter, he could have just said “No.”
Instead, he said this: “I think we are going to play the very best player and I know we are dancing around the words there. Right now, Eli is getting ready to have a great year and Daniel is getting ready to play. You see what happens with it.”
As Shurmur well knew, that non-answer left a lot open to interpretation. He even said several times, “We are playing around the words” without saying words that would’ve been a direct and definitive answer. Maybe he just likes mysteries. Maybe he’s just trying to give Jones hope to keep him working hard. Maybe he’s trying to light a fire under the 38-year-old Manning.
Whatever it is, everyone can – and will – ascribe their own meaning and motivation to what Shurmur said at the end of spring practices. And until Shurmur clears it up, it means whatever you think it means.
But based on everything Shumrur and GM Dave Gettleman have said publicly and privately, according to sources, their hope is that Manning is their opening day starter and has the “outstanding year” that Shurmur said he is expecting. They sincerely believe the veteran quarterback gives them their best chance to make a playoff run, as long as he’s on top of his game. They want to see that. They want him to be a success.
Then, they can huddle after the season and decide what the future holds.
That’s their hope, anyway. But in reality, no one seems to be completely ruling out Jones starting on Opening Day in Dallas. Which begs the question that Shurmur won’t answer: Does Jones really have a fair chance to win the job?
If he does, it won’t be easy. He’s the underdog and the odds are stacked pretty high against him. So other than an injury to Manning, here’s what would have to happen this summer for the Jones Era to begin this fall:
1. Jones needs to be lights-out during the preseason games
It’s nice that he’s looked so good in spring drills, in shorts, with no tackling, and with the defense not scheming against him. It also doesn’t mean much. The game is the thing. And with little game-planning, preseason games are often tilted in favor of the quarterback, so he needs to light it up.
That’s especially true considering he’ll be mostly facing second- and third-team defenses. He needs to be so good against the backups that it looks like a mismatch, and leaves everyone begging for more. Remember, this isn’t Sam Darnold battling a journeyman like Josh McCown. Jones is trying to unseat a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
That won’t, and shouldn’t, be easy.
2. Manning needs to be horrible in the preseason
Not just bad. Not middling. Horrible. Like a completion percentage of under 50 percent, multiple interceptions, and a complete inability to move the offense. He can’t be judged on the Manning Curve either, like he was last season when he completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,299 yards with 21 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, yet some geniuses still argued he was somehow “done.”
Remember, he’s the veteran and he’s got the advantage here. The Giants want to start him. But if he’s terrible, and if it looks like his arm strength is waning and he’s floating wobblers all over the field, then they’ll really have to give Jones some thought.
3. Jones has to show a grasp of the whole playbook
That would be unusual for a rookie quarterback, but it’s important. Shurmur needs to know he can call anything, and Jones needs to show his coach he’s smart enough to know what to run and when. As former Giants center Shaun O’Hara put it on Saturday night: “The thing that Eli can do that Daniel Jones can’t do, is he can get your offense out of a bad play. That can win you some games.”
Not being able to do it can lose some games, too. And the Giants don’t want to squander a playoff run because a rookie quarterback didn’t check out of a play that he should’ve seen wasn’t going to work.
4. Jones needs to make it clear his athleticism is a weapon
The rookie drew headlines for a few spring practice scrambles, and everyone pointed out how Manning has never been able to run like that. That’s true, and mobile quarterbacks are valuable in today’s game. But Jones has to show he knows how to use that skill.
– New York Giants (@Giants) June 4, 2019
Running just for the sake of running is mostly worthless. He needs to show he can create plays on the run. He needs to make positive plays out of broken ones with his feet. And mostly, he needs to show that when his offensive line fails him – and given the Giants’ recent history, it likely will – he can escape better than Manning ever could.
If he does that, he’ll close the gap and give the coaches a reason to make their difficult choice.
5. The players in the locker room have to believe Jones is the better choice
That is easier said than done. It was well known last year that Odell Beckham Jr. had lost faith in Manning, but the idea that many of the others had lost faith was always overblown. There is a sense in the room that Manning is nearing the end, but players seem to believe in him – and likely will until they are presented a better option.
And they have to really believe that option is better, because no NFL player wants to waste a season in what is a relatively short career. In 2004 when Manning took over for Kurt Warner, the locker room nearly revolted on Tom Coughlin – and Manning was a much more highly regarded prospect than Jones.
Somehow Jones needs to make his teammates believe he’s better than Manning right now, that he gives them a better chance to win than a 16-year veteran coming off a 4,000-yard season. In just six weeks and four preseason games, that won’t be easy to do.