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How long is the leash on Daniel Jones?

The Giants’ 2022 schedule suggests a convenient point for a decision on his future

Syndication: The Record
Brian Daboll and Daniel Jones at minicamp in April
Danielle Parhizkaran/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

There may be no more polarizing quarterback in the NFL than Daniel Jones. His defenders point out that he has had less help from the rest of his team than almost any other NFL QB:

And that doesn’t even include criticisms of the conservative play-calling and outdated pass routes of former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. This is the John Mara “We’ve done everything possible to screw this kid up since he’s been here” point of view.

But Jones has plenty of critics, too. Chris Pflum wrote in BBV about a recent article in The 33rd Team by former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum that places Jones in the lowest, “waiting to see it,” tier of QBs. Tannenbaum is far from alone in his dim view of Jones. For example, Sports Illustrated ranks Jones as No. 32 among NFL QBs, anticipating that he will be in the class of veteran insurance backups for a different team next year. BBV fan community members have occasionally expressed similar sentiments.

How does the new regime view Daniel Jones?

General manager Joe Schoen, head coach Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, and quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney have had just about nothing except good things to say about Daniel Jones since he arrived. Their only stated desire is for him to be more aggressive than he was the past two years. Schoen made no attempt to draft a replacement for Jones in the recent NFL draft.

Nonetheless, Schoen did not exercise Jones’ fifth-year option, and he did sign veteran QB Tyrod Taylor as “insurance” - ostensibly in the event of an injury to Jones, a scenario that proved catastrophic to the Giants’ offense in 2021. But there can be other motives for taking out insurance. Jones may not want to watch “Double Indemnity” or “Body Heat” any time soon.

The Giants’ offensive line and play calling should be better in 2022. Let’s also imagine that the Giants’ wide receivers are healthier than last year (and if not, there’s Wan’Dale Robinson) and that Saquon Barkley, if not the resurrection of his 2018 self, at least looks something more like it than he has the past couple of years. If so, then the excuses will no longer exist, and the onus will be squarely on Jones to perform. Can he, and how soon will we (and more importantly, Daboll) know?

When do head coaches make changes at quarterback?

We don’t know what Daboll’s expectations are for winning and losing this year. But coaches tend to make switches at the helm when a team is going bad and there is a large enough sample size to conclude that things aren’t going to get better with the present starting QB.

In 2004, Tom Coughlin benched Kurt Warner for rookie Eli Manning after the Giants lost three of four games in mid-season to drop to 5-4. Pat Shurmur had a quicker hook in 2019. The Giants opened that season with an embarrassing blowout at Dallas and a convincing home loss to what was seen as a mediocre Buffalo Bills team. Shurmur switched from Manning to Jones the following week.

2022 is different, because if Jones is not the answer, then the answer is not on the roster. But if Daboll sees a possible playoff contender that is not reaching its potential because of poor quarterback play, might he at some point hand the reins to veteran Tyrod Taylor?

If the past is prologue

Let’s look at how Jones has performed against various defenses, using widely-known metrics, and apply the same to his 2022 opponents. There are three common quarterback performance metrics, and like fans and professional analysts, they have different views about Daniel Jones. The standard NFL “passer rating” (PRT) is based on yards, touchdowns, and interceptions per pass attempt, plus completion percentage. The ESPN “quarterback rating” (QBR) relies instead on expected points added by the QB per play, which depends on down, distance, field position, and game situation, and is adjusted for the opponent’s strength. The third is the Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade, which is a subjective assessment of how the QB did his job on each play.

One would think that at the very least, all three metrics would agree about Jones’ best and worst games. Sometimes they do; other times they do not, because they attempt to measure different things. As one example, consider Jones’ game in 2021 vs. Carolina that the Giants won going away 25-3. He went 23 for 33 for 201 yards, 1 TD, no INTs, against a good defense, and he made this great catch to boot:

What more do you want from the guy? PRT graded him 95.9 (out of a possible 158.3), a good grade, and PFF 80.4 (out of 100), a very good grade. QBR? 36.5 (out of 100), a failing grade.

Overall, the correlation between Jones’ PRT and QBR scores is only 0.48; that between his PRT and PFF scores is only 0.47; and between his QBR and PFF scores, 0.61. QBR and PFF are less useful for the purpose of our 2022 projections since they purposely try to isolate the quarterback’s performance from the quality of the opponent. PRT, which is more production-based, is more sensitive to the opponent.

The correlation between Jones’ individual game PRT scores and the PFF defense grades of his opponents for his 37 starts is -0.45, i.e., the better the opposing defense the worse Jones performs (to some extent - the opponent is not the only determining factor). The correlation is -0.47 with PFF’s pass coverage grade and -0.23 with its pass rush grade, suggesting that coverage may be a more important control on Jones’ success. There is no correlation (-0.06) between QBR and the PFF opposing defense grade, by design.

It’s also not clear how and whether any of the QB metrics account for this unique aspect of Jones’ NFL career:

Predicting Jones’ 2022 season

If Jones’ performance depends in part on how good the opposing defense is, he may be in luck for 2022. In his 37 starts to date, Jones has faced 18 good defenses (PFF grade 70 or above), including six with team defense grades in the 80s. He has faced only six poor defenses. In 2022 by comparison, he plays only three defenses that were good in 2021 (TEN, GB, IND), none of whom had a team defense grade of 80 or more. He will line up against four of the poorest defenses from 2021 (CHI, JAX, HOU, DET).

Tennessee will be a tough opening test for Jones. They return most starters from one of the better 2021 defenses, get injured cornerback Caleb Farley back, and add rookie CB Roger McCreary. Don’t be surprised if Jones struggles, especially the first time out with a new offense and rebuilt offensive line. Jones has had several great games against top-tier defenses in his career (112.7 PRT in his first start vs. TB; 121.7 vs. NYJ in 2019; 108.5 vs. NO in 2021). But he has also had some of his biggest stinkers against great defenses, most notably PRT 35.1 in a 3-INT game at NE in 2019; 49.4 vs. GB in 2019, another 3-INT game; and 44.7 in yet another 3-INT game vs. LAR in 2021. The Titans’ secondary was excellent in 2021 (83.4 PFF coverage grade) even without Farley and McCreary. Expect a bumpy start for the Giants’ offense.

After that, the Giants face three middling-to-subpar defenses from 2021 at home: Carolina, Dallas, and Chicago. Carolina signed free agents cornerback Xavier Woods and defensive tackles Matt Ioannidis but added little in the draft to a defense that was stingy in yards but not in points. Dallas swapped edge Randy Gregory for draftee edge Sam Williams but did little else of note on defense. Chicago lost edge Khalil Mack and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols but strengthened the back end with draftees safety Jaquan Brisker and cornerback Kyler Gordon. All of these games are opportunities for the new Daboll/Kafka Giants offense - and Daniel Jones - to establish themselves.

The following week vs. Green Bay in London is a tougher test for Jones than the opener in Tennessee. The Packers were an above-average defense in 2021 and added defensive tackle Devontae Wyatt, linebacker Quay Walker, and edge Kingsley Enagbare in the draft, although they did lose premier edge Za’Darius Smith. How Jones fares in this game will probably have little to do with his fate unless he stages an unexpected bravura performance. A great game against either Tennessee or Green Bay, like the one in New Orleans last year, could on the other hand begin to make believers of Daboll and Kafka.

The following week at home to face Baltimore is completely unpredictable. In 2020, the Ravens pass-rushed the Giants’ OL and Jones into oblivion. But the defensive coordinator of that Ravens team is now on the Giants’ sideline, and we know that defense was ravaged by injuries in 2021. But they are still expected to play the “position-less” football that Wink Martindale instilled, and they have added chess piece S Kyle Hamilton in the draft, along with EDGE David Ojabo (who may or may not have returned from his ruptured Achilles by then) and DT Travis Jones. Expect a tough outing for Jones and the Giants’ offense.

Week 7 is when it gets interesting. Four consecutive games against beatable teams with less-than-fearsome defenses, with a BYE week in the middle. Three of them were among the worst NFL defenses in 2021 (Jacksonville, Houston, Detroit), and the other was middling (Seattle). The Jags (46.3), Texans (32.0), and Lions (36.0) were three of the bottom four teams in PFF coverage score last year. The Seahawks weren‘t much better (52.0). This is when a franchise quarterback lights up the scoreboard.

Of course Jacksonville added edge/DT Travon Walker, plus linebackers Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma in the draft. Seattle drafted edge Boye Mafe, though they lost LB Bobby Wagner and S D.J. Reed. Houston now has CB Derek Stingley, S Jalen Pitre, and LB Christian Harris. And Detroit will now line up edge Aidan Hutchinson and IDL Josh Paschal. So none of these defenses may be pushovers in 2022.

By the time this stretch is over, Daboll and Kafka should have enough evidence to know whether the Giants have improved on metrics such as this one:

It’s reasonable to imagine that this will be the put-up or shut-up time for Daniel Jones. The last two games of this four-game stretch are at MetLife, and it will be no surprise if fans are restless if the Giants lose most of them. After these games, five of the final seven games are within the division. If Jones has not solidified himself as a franchise quarterback by this point, this may be when Daboll switches to Tyrod Taylor to finish the season and audition to be the placeholder QB1 for 2023.

Alternatively, Jones may have performed well up to this point. In that case, the end-of-season gauntlet of five division games plus Minnesota and Indianapolis will be his final argument to retain his starting job in 2023. Play well in these games, and return in 2023.

I’ve said nothing about the Giants’ 2022 W-L record. The Giants’ defense will have a lot to say about that too. The Los Angeles Chargers are not getting rid of Justin Herbert because he didn’t take them to the playoffs - they know their defense was the culprit. Jones is not Herbert by any means, but the question Daboll and Co. have to answer this year is whether he can be Ryan Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo, or Derek Carr - quarterbacks who won’t often thrill but who can get their team to the post-season and make some noise there if the rest of the team is good. If so, that may be enough for them to run it back with Daniel Jones in 2023.