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The butterfly effect, New York Giants edition

Daniel Jones hurt his neck over a year ago, and here the Giants are in the second round of the NFL playoffs

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
The play on which Daniel Jones’ neck injury most likely occurred vs. the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 28, 2021
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The “butterfly effect” is a term in popular culture that refers to the idea that in some complex systems, small changes at one point in time might lead to very different outcomes in the more distant future. It derives from a talk given by the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz back in 1972. Lorenz was interested in something slightly different - how well weather could be forecast the farther into the future you go and how very small errors in what we know about the weather now translate into very different forecasts in the long term. But the popular usage of the term to mean that small seemingly unimportant things that happen now can create a very different future is more fun, so let’s ride with it.

On November 28, 2021, the 3-7 New York Giants hosted the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium. Early in the game, Giants quarterback Daniel Jones ran left on a zone read, slid, and took a questionable hit in the head by an Eagles defender:

Jones remained in the game, played well, and the Giants won, 13-7, lending hope to the idea that they could salvage their season and maybe even contend for a playoff berth. No harm, no foul.

Then two days later we found out that Jones actually wasn’t OK:

Still, no problem, right? Disappointing that Jones would miss a winnable game against the Dolphins, but Mike Glennon had actually played pretty well a few weeks earlier when Jones was injured against the Cowboys. Take a week off, heal, and be back in action for a playoff drive. A small blip with no long-term consequences.

But we know that it didn’t happen that way:

Glennon proved not to be up to the job, and late in a home loss vs. Dallas, head coach Joe Judge turned to Jake Fromm, who played well. Alas, both Fromm and Glennon were awful in the return matchup with the Eagles.

Despite this, Joe Judge seemed secure in his job and sure to return for a third season. By the next-to-last game of the season in Chicago, though, the Giants had reached the point of being afraid to even attempt a forward pass after Mike Glennon opened the game by fumbling on a sack and being intercepted on the next series:

Judge subsequently gave an 11-minute answer to a question in the postgame presser that will always be part of Giants lore:

When two long-term weather forecasts based on slightly different initial data wind up differing greatly, it sometimes happens slowly at the start and then reaches a tipping point where one forecast suddenly dramatically diverges from the other and there is no going back. The Chicago game and the presser that followed were the tipping point for the 2021 Giants.

The next week Jake Fromm was back at the helm vs. Washington in the season finale, but the offense was no better, leading to this indelible moment in Giants history:

Judge was fired two days later, leading about 10 days later to this:

which in turn led to this:

which then led to this:

which 11 months later led to this:

The picture and clip at the top of this piece show that Daniel Jones had begun his slide well before the Eagles defenders got to him. Imagine what would have happened had they they slowed up just a bit and just missed hitting his head. A miniscule difference that wouldn’t have had any noticeable effect on the rest of the game.

But the long-term forecast for the Giants might have played out much differently. Jones may well have finished the season, the Giants probably would have finished with at least as many wins as they had in 2020, John Mara would have made good on his intention not to fire another head coach after only two years, and Judge would have remained head coach through the 2022 season. It all turned on what might have been a late hit that no one thought much of when it happened.

So as the Giants prepare for their Divisional Round game against Philadelphia this Saturday night, it seems only right to say,

Thanks, Eagles! We couldn’t have done it without you!