This offseason, the phrase "make or break" has been used so many times in relation to Daniel Jones that it is as if the Pro Football Writers of America have a covert agreement amongst themselves to include it in every last article written about the New York Giants quarterback.
More than perhaps any quarterback in football, Jones has had to prove himself worthy as an NFL-caliber quarterback since being taken with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. And through two years, Jones has had moments of brilliance that have inspired the imagination of Giants fans and given them faith in him. But he has also had plenty working against him -- changes in coaching and offensive system, injuries and unreliable play at skill positions, and an offensive line that hasn't protected him -- which has shown up in his results.
Given that, Jones has been placed directly in the crosshairs of the "do it now or else" culture of quarterback development in the NFL and all the jargon that comes with it. Jargon which, in the grand scheme of pro football today, is exasperating for Giants great and CBS' NFL Today pregame analyst Phil Simms to sift through.
"My favorite thing is listening to TV, reading articles -- 'make or break years.' And when I say that, it's like I've never seen so many quarterbacks, 'This is it! Make or break! Gotta do it! Make or break!'" Simms told CBS Sports. "Well what does that mean, Super Bowl? These type of things, it's crazy."
The position that Jones is now in, both from an on-field performance and a public perception standpoint, shares some parallels with the position Simms was in when he entered his third NFL season 40 years ago in 1981. Which stands to reason given that the two quarterback's early careers with the Giants have both shared some markedly similar characteristics.
Like Jones, Simms went under the radar in college and played largely out of the national spotlight. Like Jones, Simms being drafted by the Giants was met with boos and jeers by incredulous fans. And like Jones, Simms' first two seasons were marked by uneven results, with moments of individual brilliance mixed in with having to take his lumps and an overall lack of winning for a Giants team still trying to crawl out of the doldrums.
While the early 1980s presented a much simpler world of media and football analysis, the very things being said about Simms entering his third season could easily be said about Jones today.
"The jury is still out on Simms. By far he's the best the Giants have. But his inconsistency puzzles people," read the Aug. 2, 1981 edition of the Press & Sun-Bulletin. "When he's good, he's very good. But when he's bad, he's very, very bad. ... The blame lies with the quarterback. He's the target of criticism. More criticism is surely ahead."
Simms' early career did not get any easier from that point: Injuries began to plague him, he was thrust into a quarterback controversy with Scott Brunner, and he at one point asked to be traded after being benched. It wasn't until his sixth season in 1984 that he began to become the sort of quarterback he is now remembered as -- and even then, being perceived as a winning quarterback was still a challenge.
1985: #NYGiants fans are tough on QBs. Irv Cross' feature on @PhilSimmsQB before the playoffs showed what he went thru. No twitter in 1985 but listen to the fans saying he can't win. "The only time to get over the stigma is to win it all" It's @Daniel_Jones10 turn. #TogetherBlue pic.twitter.com/ZRepdHdyED— BigBlueVCR (@BigBlueVCR) March 28, 2021
Jones doesn't have the luxury of a six-year period to transition into the NFL -- he might not even have four. Thanks to a variety of factors, including the salary cap and the fifth-year option on the rookie contracts of first-round picks, more and more teams have chosen to cut ties with young quarterbacks after three, two, or even one year if they do not instantly produce. As teams covet quarterbacks as messianic figures more than ever before, and the college level features more polished and pro-ready superstar quarterbacks, the quarterback market has become increasingly cutthroat and merciless compared to when Simms played.
"Teams were more patient, movement was not anything like it is now, the money was not such a big factor," Simms explained. "But so many good young quarterbacks coming out, it's easier to make the move and look and see and really know sometimes if the guy coming out that you might draft is just better than your so-called franchise quarterback that you thought you already had. And fans are impatient, the media is very impatient, and that kind of drives it."
Speaking about Jones specifically, Simms is optimistic that the Giants' young quarterback will show progress in Year Three provided he begins to master the nuances of being a professional quarterback and team leader. In justifying his outlook for Jones, Simms cited the benefit of continuity on the team's coaching staff, the return of blue-chip running back Saquon Barkley from a torn ACL, and the concerted effort that the Giants have made this offseason in order to surround Jones with a greater level of skill talent.
"I feel safe in saying this, he's got experience, now he's got to show a little more awareness, be a little more assertive -- physically, emotionally, all those things. Just in my opinion," Simms said. "I think (the Giants are) all in on Daniel Jones. That's what I think. When you look at what they've done -- they go out and draft in the first round, Kadarius Toney -- that tells you something. They sign John Ross, they paid Kenny Golladay all that money. Saquon Barkley's coming back, they're trying to fix the offensive line, hope it comes through to what they believe it will be.
"What does that tell you? Their number one goal is to make sure their quarterback has a good year."
While the Giants' aggression in the offseason has largely led to the way the stakes are presented, Simms' expectations for his team and their young quarterback are a bit more guarded.
"If the Giants go 8-9 and Daniel Jones plays well and you can see that he's the guy, Giants fans will be happy," Simms said. "But if they go 8-9 and he doesn't play well, then we're gonna have that debate. 'Oh, should they draft a quarterback, should they do this,' or whatever. So it's really a fine line there. But I think if he plays well, that will make a lot of people feel good regardless of the record. Now I'm not saying if they go 4-13 that people are gonna say, 'Well, the quarterback played well, we really feel good about the organization,' but I think you understand what I'm trying to say.
"It's not Super Bowl. They're not gonna win the Super Bowl, I feel pretty confident in saying that. But if they show really good progress, which I think they need to -- and of course I'm saying that about the quarterback too, which he's entirely, without question capable of doing. And now that they've surrounded him. … You've got a guy that's promising and could be a great tight end. The receiving corps, Saquon Barkley, fixing the offensive line. All these things lends itself to it should get done."
Having been through the ringer of NFL-level scrutiny and then gone on to become an analyst, Simms has never been shy about stating what parts of pro football discourse grind his gears. He bemoans the hot take and strong opinion industrial complex that has come to dominate the landscape, loathes the emergence of one-game scouts, and thinks the idea of New York being a uniquely demanding and pressure-packed market is overblown.
But most of all, he takes chagrin with how every part of a team's performance -- regardless of the structure around him -- is laid at the feet of the quarterback. Which makes phrases like "make or break" rather tiresome.
"We all know the quarterback is really the central figure of your team. I understand all that. But I don't care who you are, you can't get it done unless you have the right pieces -- the organization, the owner, the coordinator and players -- around you," Simms said. "But it doesn't matter. The media, the TV media -- probably more than even the print media now -- it is, 'Make or break, he'll never win a Super Bowl. Well, how many has he won? What about the playoffs?'
"It's pretty crazy. And being an ex-quarterback, ex-football player, it drives me crazy at times. But that's the world we live in. We've narrowed it down to the head coach and the quarterback. And that's it."
In some ways, that's preferable to the thoughts that used to agitate him. Entering his third season, Simms admitted in a July 1981 feature by the New York Daily News that he had a crisis of confidence as to whether or not he'd ever be a consistent NFL quarterback. But amid his self doubts, a turning point came when head coach Ray Perkins told him to "go out there and do your job and [expletive] everybody else. To hell with everybody else."
When asked if Giants head coach Joe Judge should tell Daniel Jones anything similar, Simms shared that he believes such a conversation has already occurred.
"I think Joe Judge has already spoken to Daniel Jones this offseason. And that is, 'We went out and drafted guys, signed free agents, Saquon's coming back -- we're doing it all for you,'" Simms said. "Yes, they're doing it for the football team. But this was an offseason (where the Giants said) let's make sure we give Daniel Jones a chance to show everybody who he is. That's what I took out of it."
In two seasons so far, Jones has already accomplished a great deal. He has defied the narrative that he wasn't first-round caliber, and has arguably proven that he was worthy of being the second quarterback off the board in 2019. He has had signature wins and set records, such as when he became the first rookie QB in league history to have three games with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. His teammates, like linebacker Blake Martinez and safety Xavier McKinney, swear by him.
In Simms' view, the next step for Jones will be to harness the power of the quarterback position and to use it to his advantage -- just as others like Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson have done as they have become more assertive and taken control of their teams. Do that, and Jones will take a major step toward defying his doubters and proving that he is indeed the Giants franchise quarterback.
"There's no doubt athletically. Running, physically, whatever you want to say, throwing the ball, size -- he's prototypical of what you want in today's game," Simms said. "I would be very surprised if the Giants don't show that they've improved as a football team, and that he doesn't have a more productive, pleasing year to Giants fans."