Early this century, the NFL began to institute a series of rule changes that favored the offense, especially passing. It triggered an era of great players whose careers now define what a quarterback is supposed to be. Here are the top 10 QBs in passing yards in NFL history, courtesy of Pro Football Reference:
Except for Dan Marino, all the passing leaders played their entire career or at least half of it in the 21st Century. And they generally fit the mold of what we think of as the quarterback ideal: The prolific passer throwing bombs downfield, dominating the game and running up the score against weak opponents. But also not very athletic and immobile beyond moving around the pocket.
That ideal has persisted for several decades, and it pervades the unending discussions of who the top 10 QBs in the NFL are. But it goes beyond that. Every team is seeking a “franchise quarterback.” General managers seem to be looking for the next Patrick Mahomes (if there ever is one), or Josh Allen, or Joe Burrow, or Justin Herbert. What teams and their fans seem to dread these days are “game managers,” capable quarterbacks who won’t light up the scoreboard but will win enough games to get their team into the playoffs, even if they rarely or never sniff a Super Bowl.
To most people, a “game manager” is about all that Daniel Jones could ever be. In that spirit, let’s ask a few questions about Daniel Jones past, present, and future.
Has Daniel Jones been a game manager in the NFL?
There’s no objective definition of a game manager, but most football fans would say that they know one when they see one. So which NFL quarterbacks past and present have Jones most resembled in his career?
For this purpose we use Tucker Boynton’s great NFL Quarterback Cards shiny app. Here are the four years of Jones’ NFL career evaluated using various advanced individual metrics for QBs on the left side of the diagram, along with other standard pieces of information about the QB’s play plus that of his receivers, offensive line, and defense on the right. The colors indicate league percentiles in which each number falls, from the lowest in deep violet (poor) to the highest in deep green (excellent).
A game manager would have mostly pale colors on this diagram, indicating near-average play. Jones wasn’t that as a rookie. He threw plenty of TD passes in Pat Shurmur’s offense but had plenty of turnovers as well, and most of his positive stats were accumulated in a few good games. His first year under Joe Judge in the Jason Garrett offense was worse in some respects even though PFF started to love him and his ESPN QBR rating increased. Jones especially fared poorly in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and DYAR measures, which are more about team performance than how well the QB himself does. The second Judge/Garrett year was better in the team-performance measures but not overall in the QB-specific stats. We can say that Jones finally reached “game manager” status in 2022, the pale colors with more green and less violet indicating near-average results.
Are there other QBs with similar stat lines for individual years? NFL Quarterback Cards can be queried for that purpose also. Here are the most similar QBs to Daniel Jones as a rookie:
A couple of has-beens (e.g., late-career Andy Dalton) and never-weres (e.g., Kyle Allen, Blaine Gabbert), a couple of promising young QBs whose stars have fallen or not yet quite risen (Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Justin Fields), and a couple of journeymen.
By 2021 this is what Jones had become:
Some similarities to the types of QB he most compared to in 2019, but also Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger...but unfortunately the 2017 “checkdown Eli” and the 2021 washed Ben. Not what you want to see your QB develop into in his third year, but that was the Joe Judge - Jason Garrett philosophy in action. There’s also the 2022 vintage of Kyler Murray, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement of what Jones was last season.
Finally in 2022, it begins to get a little more interesting:
Appearing in this list three times is Ryan Tannehill, often held up as an example of what Daniel Jones might become. The three seasons are 2014, when Tannehill passed for 4,045 yards with 27 TDs and only 12 INTs for the Miami Dolphins; 2021, when the Titans won the AFC South and were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs; and 2022, when they led the AFC South before Tannehill’s season-ending ankle injury compromised their offense. Tannehill is the poster child for what a successful game-manager might be - the Titans have regularly been a playoff team but have always gotten knocked out before reaching the Super Bowl.
Another entry that will surprise no one is 2014 and 2015 Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs regularly made the playoffs with Smith at the helm, but never reached the Super Bowl. Replaced by Patrick Mahomes in 2018, they have won the Super Bowl once and lost it another time. Smith vs. Mahomes is perhaps the cleanest example of going from game manager to franchise quarterback.
A surprising entry in the list is Justin Herbert, whom few people would think of as a comp for Daniel Jones. He probably makes this list for two reasons: It’s 2022 Herbert, whose fractured rib cartilage reduced his ability to throw downfield. And the debate that rages in Chargers’ fandom is whether conservative, run-first offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is wasting Herbert’s skills.
An unsettling appearance in the similarity scores is 2021 Carson Wentz. Wentz had a good 2021 season for the Indianapolis Colts, throwing for 3,563 yards with 27 TDs and only 7 INTs, so it is easy to see why he and Jones are judged to be fairly similar statistically. The big difference is that Wentz collapsed at the end of the season, losing two games that would have put the Colts into the playoffs, while Jones has saved his best work for the end of the 2022 season.
Does a franchise quarterback have to be among the top passers?
The problem with the 21st Century franchise quarterback ideal is that it doesn’t account for an aspect of the game that has increasingly become important - quarterbacks who can run, not just to escape pressure but as an offensive weapon in and of itself.
There have always been gifted scrambling quarterbacks, e.g., my original BBV namesake Fran Tarkenton and Eli’s father Archie Manning. (That gene definitely was not passed down to Peyton and Eli.) But for quite a while now there has been at least a sprinkling of QBs who are dangerous runners and who have accumulated substantial rushing yardage to add to their passing yardage. There seems to have been some bias against running QBs - replace “those who can’t do, teach” with “those who can’t pass, run.”
Here is the list of all-time NFL leaders in rushing by quarterbacks (leaders in total rushing yards, but ordered here by rushing yards per game to highlight the ones for whom rushing was/is most important to their contribution to offense):
Unlike the passing leaders list, most of the leading rushing QBs were not prolific enough as passers to make the Hall of Fame. Cam Newton may have been on a Hall of Fame track but injuries hastened his decline before he could reach Canton-level career numbers. Among active QBs, Russell Wilson is probably on track for the Hall of Fame, though his disastrous 2022 season compromises that a bit. Wilson has been a great passer and great runner throughout his career. Josh Allen projects as an eventual Hall of Famer if he can stay healthy long enough. Lamar Jackson, No. 1 by a mile among the career QB rushing yards per game leaders, is the rare example of a QB who began as almost purely a running threat but learned to become an excellent passer as well. The question for him is whether he can maintain his style without frequently being injured and whether he will ever have elite receivers to throw to.
Where does Daniel Jones stand among these quarterback rushing leaders? Here are his rushing stats for his first four seasons:
In career rushing yards, he’s only at 1,708, nowhere near the top since he has only played for four seasons. But his career 31.6 rushing yards per game puts him sixth on the all-time list. He has become a more important part of the Giants’ offense as a rusher each year, increasing in number of rushes - dramatically so this year in the Daboll-Kafka offense.
If Jones’ 2023 season is similar to 2022, he will break into the top 10 in career QB rushing yardage after only five seasons. If he maintains his 2022 pace for seven years he will pass Michael Vick as all-time career rushing leader. That may not be easy to do as wear and tear on his body accumulates, but it does indicate that Jones’ rushing is not just a passing fancy. Saquon Barkley’s hilarious “Vanilla Vick” nickname for Jones isn’t really accurate - Vick was an extremely elusive runner in addition to his great speed, while Jones has a simpler, more straight-ahead style that is effective because he is surprisingly fast.
But Daniel Jones has a chance to be something special, if we alter our thinking a little bit about what a franchise quarterback has to look like. The fact is that with the 2022 regular season now ended, Jones finished seventh in the league in QBR, which unlike the traditional NFL passer rating, includes contributions from both passing and rushing:
Top seven is franchise QB territory. And in his first playoff game he had a QBR of 81.2. So what is Daniel Jones’ career ceiling?
Two possible futures (informed by the past)
To these eyes, it seems that Daniel Jones has progressed significantly since the first few games of the season. I saw no noticeable difference between early 2022 season Jones and 2021 Jones, other than the results being better in the Daboll-Kafka offense. His QBR scores bear that out: 22.9 vs. TEN, 33.6 vs. CAR, and 44.6 vs. DAL. Since then he has had only three games with QBR below 50 (SEA, DET, and the first WAS game) and eight games above 70. To me, his last two games have been spectacular.
That’s a small sample, though. Is the 2022 season, taken as a body of work, the ceiling for Jones? Or do the last couple of weeks indicate that the arrow is pointing upward and that with some help at wide receiver and interior offensive line from Joe Schoen in the offseason, there’s another level that Jones can possibly reach? Let’s consider two examples from the past, either of whom I’d sign up for in a heartbeat (since both became Hall of Famers).
Bart Starr’s early career has some interesting parallels to that of Daniel Jones. Starr was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, one of the worst franchises in the NFL, in 1956. He was a sometimes starter but compiled a record of only 3-15-1. During those years the Giants were one of the best teams in the NFL, not least because of their innovative offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi, who introduced the use of zone blocking (“run to daylight” as he described it) to the NFL. In 1959 the Packers hired Lombardi away from the Giants as head coach. His first decision was whether to lean into Starr as quarterback.
From Starr’s web page at the Hall of Fame:
“Lombardi, in tireless study of films, found that he liked Bart’s mechanics, his arm, his ball-handling techniques and, most of all, his decision-making abilities. Under Vince’s careful nurturing, Starr gained the confidence to become one of the NFL’s great field leaders.
Although Starr seemed to receive minimal personal recognition for the team’s successes, knowledgeable football men knew who was making the Packers click. He was the perfect quarterback for his team. Because it was a balanced attack that he led, Starr’s passes were limited – remarkably, he never threw as many as 300 passes in any one season. This may have helped to create the illusion that he was only an average passer.”
Starr never passed for as many as 2,500 yards in a season. He never threw more than 16 TDs in any season. In 1962 by comparison, the Giants’ Y.A. Tittle threw for 3,224 yards and 33 TDs while Starr threw for only 2,438 yards with 12 TDs. Yet Green Bay went 13-1 and defeated the Giants for the second consecutive year in the NFL Championship Game. Starr was second team All-Pro that year and made one of his four Pro Bowl appearances. In 1966, another of his 5 NFL Championship seasons, he threw for only 2,257 yards and 14 TDs, 1,000 yards less than the league leaders and less than half the league-leading TD total. Yet Starr was the AP and UPI NFL MVP. The Packers won with the great rushing duo of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung and a punishing defense. Yet, Starr was the one who made it all work.
Bart Starr was not a runner. He never rushed for more than 169 yards in a season. He was not a prolific passer even by the standards of the 1960s. He was the ultimate “game manager”. But he’s a Hall of Famer. Could a game manager win a Super Bowl in today’s NFL, or are the Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill cases the ceiling that we can expect for Daniel Jones? We may find out over the next few seasons.
But since we’re flush with excitement after Daniel Jones’ second 300-yard passing performance in three games and the Giants’ first playoff win in over a decade this week, let’s dream. Imagine a running quarterback who becomes a great passer, too.
Besides Russell Wilson, there’s one other QB among the all-time rushing leaders in the chart above who was also a great passer. Steve Young had an abbreviated NFL career because he spent his first two seasons in the USFL and then sat behind Joe Montana for his first four NFL seasons. But once he became the starter he set the league on fire, winning two MVP awards, being first or second team All-Pro six times, and appearing in seven Pro Bowls. Of course it didn’t hurt that he had Jerry Rice and John Taylor to throw to.
Young was a passer first, a runner second. He didn’t have the elusiveness of Michael Vick. But he wasn’t afraid to take off when the pocket collapsed or when the seas parted in front of him. He finished with 4,239 NFL rushing yards and 43 rushing TDs, and that’s with only about 9 seasons as a starter. Watch his rushing highlights. I see a lot of Steve Young in Daniel Jones.
Can Daniel Jones ever become a Steve Young-calibre passer? That’s asking a lot. Would Daboll and Kafka (as long as he’s around) open up the passing game more often if they thought Jones could handle it? Would they do it if Joe Schoen got them a top-flight wide receiver next season? Or is the more surgical approach we’re seeing lately, patiently driving downfield with a mix of short- and medium-range passes mixed with Saquon Barkley rushes and occasional Jones zone read runs, simply their vision of the future in a two-high safety defense NFL and their opinion of the most that Daniel Jones can do? If Jones is back next season we’ll find out.