It may be a cliche to say that for many players NFL doesn't mean National Football League, rather that it stands for "Not For Long," but the New York Giants are living proof that the saying has merit. Rewind to their 2019 training camp: running back Saquon Barkley had just lived up to the hype of being selected second overall in the 2018 draft with a historic rookie season. He led the NFL with 2,028 scrimmage yards, the third-most as a rookie in NFL history behind Hall Famers Eric Dickerson (2,212) and Edgerrin James (2,139 in 1999) en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. At quarterback, the G-Men thought they had their young Eli Manning clone after selecting Duke's Daniel Jones sixth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Today, both Barkley and Jones are at a career crossroads, each staring down the final year of the rookie contracts in 2022 while playing for a new head coach in former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and general manager in former Buffalo Bills assistant general manager Joe Schoen, neither of whom have to employ their starting backfield beyond this season to keep their jobs since the two were drafted by previous regimes.
The hope for both players is that this upcoming season simply can't be as ugly as 2021 was for the Giants across the board. Former head coach Joe Judge's final season in charge was marred by injuries, including Jones (six games missed due to a neck injury), Barkley (three games, ankle injury/COVID protocol), the 2021 offseason's highest-paid free agent wide receiver Kenny Golladay (three games, knee injury), center Nick Gates (15 games, leg fracture), guard Shane Lemieux (16 games, knee injury), and tackle Andrew Thomas (four games, ankle/foot).
Production naturally suffered down the stretch as the offense collapsed with the Giants failing to get a win in their final six games without Jones. They finished as one of the league's worst two scoring units, with the season's exclamation point coming in their final game at home against Washington, running a quarterback sneak on third-and-9 inside their own 5-yard line.
Giants' 2021 season: Winter woes
* Daniel Jones missed all six games (neck injury)
Giants 2021 offense: Bottom of the barrel
Enter Daboll, the architect of the NFL's second-highest scoring offense (29.8 PPG) across the last two seasons, who helped lead the Bills to playoff wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since their run of four straight Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s. The key to Buffalo's resurgence was Daboll figuring out how to get the most out of the Bills' 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback Josh Allen, whom the team drafted seventh overall in 2018.
Utilizing more empty formations (five receivers, only the quarterback in the backfield), pre-snap motion, play-action and mesh concepts/crossing routes allowed Daboll to simplify the game for Allen, aiding him in making quicker decisions as a runner and a passer. Under Daboll's tutelage, Allen became the only player in NFL history in their first four seasons with over 100 passing touchdowns (103) and 30 rushing touchdowns (31).
Josh Allen's career upswing
* Top 10 in NFL
Between Daboll and new offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, who was Patrick Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs quarterback coach from 2018-21, Jones relishes his chance to work with the Giants new offensive brain trust going forward.
"They both bring a ton of ideas, new ideas from different systems, systems that have had a lot of success, had quarterbacks with a lot of success," Jones said in May. "I think all those ideas here, new thoughts here, new concepts, new plays, I think all that stuff (will help him improve). Just trying to pick up those little things here and there and listening to some of their philosophy on playing the position, playing offense, looking for opportunities to make plays at times when they aren't there and to protect the ball.
"I think all those conversations, just learning from their experience and what they've been around, the success that they've had."
Jones has a similar physical makeup (6-5, 230 pounds) to Allen's, and some slightly better efficiency numbers (completion percentage and passing yards per game) than Allen had in his first three seasons.
Comparing Daniel Jones and Josh Allen's first three seasons
However, Daboll made it crystal clear a day after he was officially hired as Jones' head coach in January that he isn't going to compare his new quarterback to his former quarterback.
"We're going to take it day by day," Daboll said on Jan. 31. "Look, we're not going to make any predictions and I wouldn't do that to Daniel or really any player. I don't think that's fair to compare him to another guy that I was working with. He's himself. We're going to find out what he does well. We're going to try to implement a system that suits him and then it's our job to bring pieces in that help him to be the best version of himself and the best quarterback for us."
In order for Jones to be the best version of himself, the Giants need Barkley to come close to the high bar he set in his first two seasons in terms of production and health. He is the only player in team history with over 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons (2018-2019), but tearing his ACL in Week 2 of the 2020 season caused Barkley to miss the final 14 games. Still shaking off the effects of that injury last season, he has averaged 3.46 rushing yards per carry over the last two years, the fewest in the NFL among players with more than 150 carries. Despite his struggles the last two seasons, Barkley's 14 career plays of 50 or more yards are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2018, three more than Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry's 11 in that span.
Saquon Barkley career stats: Running downhill
Daniel Jones with and without Saquon Barkley*
|With Barkley||Without Barkley|
*Since Jones' rookie season in 2019
"The last two years not going how I wanted, I kind of have been reflecting on that," Barkley said at Giants' training camp on July 29. "Everything happens for a reason. So, the adversity, the injuries that were put in my way these last two years, God has a bigger plan and it's all going to work out. So, coming up on this year, year five, for me I just want to, as I said in my first interview when I talked to you guys this year, I just want to show the Giants that the guy that they drafted is still here. I can still go out there and make the plays and help my team be successful. That's the only thing I am focused on. Take care of myself, take care of my body, take care of my mental, and try to be the best teammate I can be."
Getting Barkley back on track is a top priority of Daboll's as he integrates the Giants into his offensive system.
"You see him [Saquon Barkley] running around here; he's a pretty skilled player," Daboll said at training camp on July 29. "Our job is to figure out ways to use him, whether he did it last year or the year before, two years, in college [at Penn State]. When you're developing in a system, you kind of figure out what these guys do best, and you challenge them to do more. And if it doesn't look great, then you see if you want to keep pursuing it. And if you want to keep pursuing it, then you've got to get them better. And if not, then you just throw it away and do something else."
One thing Jones has worked to throw away is his high turnover numbers since he has the third-most in the NFL along with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan (49), since entering the league in 2019, behind only Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (52), and recently acquired Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield (51). To cut back, he began to attempt shorter, quicker throws, and as a result, Jones was sacked at a career-low rate last season.
Daniel Jones' career stats
In order to lift both Jones' and Barkley's ceilings in 2022, Schoen and Daboll acquired three new starters to plug in on the offensive line next to Thomas at left tackle and Lemieux at left guard: projected right tackle Evan Neal (selected seventh overall in the 2022 NFL Draft out of Alabama), center Jon Feliciano (a starter with the Bills the last three seasons) and guard Mark Glowinski (a starter with the Colts the last four seasons).
"He's [Jones] got the right mindset," Daboll said of his new quarterback. "He's got good size. There's a lot of things to like about Daniel and we'll just take it one day at a time. We'll work with him. We'll help him get better. We'll help him be a better leader. We'll help him be everything. That's our job as a coaching staff and as an organization. It takes everybody. It's not just me. It's the rest of the coaches on our staff. It's the scouts. It's the support staff. It's the ownership group. It takes a lot to raise a quarterback, if you will, and he's been around the block here these last three years with some different pieces. We're going to try to give him some stability and just take it from there."
Stability would be welcomed for all involved with the Giants, who are now on to their fifth head coach in six seasons and stuck in a five-year playoff drought with a record of 22-59 since 2017, tied for the worst in the NFL with the New York Jets. Making the playoffs will likely be a tall task given the Giants would need to get past two playoff teams from a season ago in their own division, the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. However, figuring out whether or not Barkley and Jones can be their long-term future alongside Daboll will help the team take its next big step forward in rebuilding a once-proud franchise.