Quarterback development is not linear.
This is a phrase that was seared into my brain a few years ago by Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and current director of The Scouting Academy. He was speaking about the general topic of player evaluation, and highlighting that development is not “linear.” Young athletes do not progress and grow in a perfect line or pattern, as much as we want that to be the case.
I tweaked that phrase a bit to add the “quarterback” tag at the front, because over the years I have been studying the position I can attest to the idea that quarterbacks grow in bits and spurts. There are peaks and valleys along the way. Only when the player is a near-finished product do you see some stability in performance.
After an impressive debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Daniel Jones of the New York Giants seems to have come back to earth a bit. He struggled against a winless Washington Redskins defense, and then had some bumpy moments this week against a tough Minnesota Vikings squad. However, while there were mistakes — which we will get to -- this game might not have been a true setback in Jones’ growth. To the contrary, much of what he did on Sunday against Minnesota displays that his development is still on an upward track overall.
Take this first-and-10 play from midway through the second quarter. The Giants start a possession trailing 13-7 and have the football on their own 25-yard line. The offense lines up with Jones (8) in the shotgun and use 12 offensive personnel for this play, putting each tight end on a wing in a tight 2x2 formation:
Minnesota keeps their base defense in the game, and they will drop into a Tampa 2 coverage in the secondary:
New York has a perfect route dialed up here to attack this coverage:
They run a curls/spacing concept, giving each receiver a chance to find and exploit soft spots in the underneath coverage. The receiver with the best opportunity here is Sterling Shepard (87) who runs a sit route right over the football, in the space vacated by the dropping middle linebacker in this scheme.
Jones reads it perfectly and immediately comes to Shepard on this quick curl:
The quick game was a strength of Jones’s coming out of Duke University, and if you look at this play and/or his spray charts from the past few weeks, you can see how Pat Shurmur is playing to this ability. Jones shows very fast processing on these shorter concepts, and we can see the execution here in the quick game. Putting him in familiar settings and playing to his strengths is a great way to build confidence in the young passer.
Here is another example of Jones excelling in the quick game which raises a very interesting schematic question for defensive coordinators facing the rookie. In the third quarter the Giants face a third-and-4 in Vikings’ territory. They align again with 12 offensive personnel, this time with a trips look to the left. Minnesota shows pressure before the snap with an overload look to the right:
If you listen to the audio of this play, you can hear Jones screaming “randy randy randy” before the snap. This is just an educated guess, but it does seem that the QB is adjusting the protection to ensure the right edge is covered. Tight end Rhett Ellison (85) stays in to block, as does the running back, both to the right side. The blitz does indeed come, but Jones knows that with the protection solidified on that edge he will have time. Even knowing that, he comes immediately to the left on a speed out to Shepard:
This is impressive pre- and post-snap processing from the rookie. He spots the blitz before the play, changes the protection to make sure he has the blitz blocked up, and then immediately exploits the blitz with a route against man coverage.
So the schematic question this play raises is this: Is blitzing him the smart play for a defense? We have seen what he can do with his legs in terms of escaping pressure, but blitzing him might play to his strengths as a passer in the quick game. If the defense does not get home -- and the Vikings certainly got home a few times with blitz schemes on Sunday — Jones then has the ability to rely on his strengths as a passer and make the quick reads and throws where he is at his best. Something to ponder as his career unfolds.
One of the surprises about Jones’s start to his career has been his success in the vertical passing game. That trait also showed up on Sunday on this vertical route to Darius Slayton (86)
Jones has a very clean pocket to work from, but drops in this throw beautifully. For his part Slayton runs a perfect route, beating his defender on the vertical route and leaving Xavier Rhodes (29) behind.
Now this was perhaps his best throw of the day, and it comes from a collapsing pocket. On a first-and-10 in the fourth quarter, the Giants are trying to claw back into the contest. They are in Minnesota territory, and Jones looks for Evan Engram on this seam route:
Minnesota blitzes on this play and they rotate to a single-high coverage in the secondary. They show the QB a two-high scheme before the snap, but their rotation and blitz come right as the play begins. The rookie reads this perfectly and Jones makes this throw on the seam route with an unblocked defender bearing down on him, but he puts it in a catchable spot for Engram (88). It would have been a tough catch for the TE, but Jones’s throw here under duress was very impressive.
Now let’s move to the other side of the ledger.
The interception late in the game was something you can put on the rookie. Sure, you are trailing late and it is fourth down, but that does not mean that you can take everything you know about playing the position and throw it out the window. On this fourth-and-2 play you can be sure of exactly where the football is going from the moments Jones aligns in the shotgun, as his eyes take you right to his intended target:
Linebacker Anthony Barr (55) was sure of where the ball is going.
If Jones is going to throw this route, he needs to either get it out quicker or -- more importantly — give Barr something else to think about. A glance at another receiver, a pump, anything to get the linebacker moving in another direction or hesitating. Staring this route down is, as they say, a rookie mistake.
We can close this out with a play that has many people scratching their heads: The safety. Following a Dalvin Cook fumble near the goal line the Giants take over facing a first-and-10 on their own 1-yard line. They line up with Jones under center and with 13 offensive personnel in the game, putting a trio of TEs on the left:
Minnesota has their base defense in the game, and they have at this point just seven in the box:
With an eight-man surface against a seven-man box, the Giants should have this inside zone running play blocked up. However, right before the snap Minnesota crowds the box, changing the equation:
They do this right before the snap, and Barr times his run blitz perfectly, knifing between the center and the right guard to stop Jonathan Hilliman (23) in the end zone for a safety:
Now, some may wonder what, if anything, Jones could have done to prevent this. At the outset, it is a very good play by the Vikings defense, and Barr in particular. His timing is perfect, which does make one wonder about the snap count. The ball is snapped with 12 seconds left on the play clock, so this is not a case of the LB timing the snap due to the play clock, but rather the cadence. So a hard count might have been a good idea in this situation.
In terms of a potential audible, there was still time to change the play on the play clock. Now, this ventures into the realm of trying to decipher what opportunities Jones has to change the play at the line. There was still time to call an audible, but given the late adjustment did Jones even have a chance to see this and change the play? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Also possible is just an idea of situational awareness. Given the down and distance, and the positioning on the field, Jones should have been ready for a sell-out run blitz like this and again, adjusted the cadence or taken his time to make sure of the defense before the play.
Finally, there is one other thing to consider: New York had all three timeouts left. If you are ever — ever -- unsure of what you are seeing, burn the TO. In the words of the great philosopher Tony Soprano, “talking helps.”
That being said, there were still some great things from Jones on Sunday, despite the loss. Growth is never linear, and there will be bumps along the way. But against a tough defense Jones still flashed some of the areas that are strengths of his. Now, his biggest test to date looms this week, as he squares off against the defending Super Bowl champions on the road in a short week. This will be a great opportunity to truly see how his growth is progressing.