EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The first day of padded practice at New York Giants camp showed over the span of two hours what could go so right and so wrong for this team in 2021.
For a team like the Giants, a 6-10 group from a year ago that has added talent in key areas but doesn't have the depth to survive injuries to key positions for a second straight year, the margins are slim. That's why the little things matter, and that's why the fight -- and the immediate aftermath of it -- matters.
Late in practice during a drill, backup running back Corey Clement got shoved from behind. Tight end Evan Engram didn't like that too much and retaliated against the unknown defensive player. Safety Logan Ryan came in and shoved Engram, and seemingly every Giants player was on the field within moments either fighting or removing a teammate from the scuffle.
If you're a veteran of NFL training camps, this was a wholly unremarkable training camp fight, one you see every year with a team that usually happens on a hot day after a few straight days of padded practices. What made this one unique was that starting quarterback Daniel Jones was in the middle of it, winding up on the ground during the fight's climax in his red non-contact practice jersey.
"[I'm] certainly a part of the team, part of the offense and I've got to do a better job -- we've all got to do a better job -- controlling our willingness to compete and wanting to be out there," Jones told me when I asked him about why he took part in the scuffle. "I'm going to have my teammates back just like anybody would. We all have that feeling we've just got to channel it more effectively and maybe a little bit smarter.''
I love it. That's what Jones needs to be doing. Nearly every Giants player who spoke with media afterward ultimately said it probably wasn't the smartest thing for Jones to be anywhere near the fight, but even Clement couldn't deny that it earned the QB a little street cred in the locker room.
Jones has had the reputation of being this mild-mannered young guy, and seeing him get in the mix with his teammates may very well be the sort of ego boost and swagger he and the offense need going forward.
And it came on a day that was the offense's best in training camp so far. Jones was surgical in one-on-ones, team drills and red zone all day. I'm struggling to think of one bad pass he threw the entire day. He even ran in for a touchdown during red-zone drills that had everyone in blue jerseys hyping him up.
That's the sort of stuff that matters for a quarterback who didn't take the step up he needed to from Year 1 to Year 2. It's that sort of chutzpah the Giants will need from the leader in a long season.
Head coach Joe Judge's reaction was dramatic, to say the least. The second-year coach weaved a tapestry of obscenities that is still hanging over the Meadowlands before having his guys run two rounds of wind sprints and ultimately do 60 pushups to end practice.
"It's definitely been a while," Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams told me when I asked how long it's been since he had a punishment like that on the practice field. "We make sure that we're a well-conditioned team so we run after every practice anyways. We definitely have ran bouts before but two 2-minute bouts and a bunch of pushups, I think we definitely learned our lesson and that probably won't happen (again)."
Every NFL coach will tell you they want competitiveness from their players that doesn't cross over into stupidity. In related news, I want millions of dollars without having to work. Camp fights are going to happen in this profession, and the sort of negative reinforcement I saw Tuesday was unique to this level of competition.
But that's how razor-thin the margins are for this Giants team. Judge has been given a clear runway to instill a culture he sees fit with this group, from refusing to call players by their names publicly when he first took the job, to making the entire defense and coaching staff run laps on Monday to the punishment he doled out Tuesday.
If it works and the Giants win, he's a genius whose old-school, football-guy techniques have brought the G-Men back to the playoffs for just the second time in a decade. If it doesn't and they lose, he looks foolish. I mean, really ... the speech he gave before sending them running contained a lot of cussing.
Beyond the fight, I have no doubt Saquon Barkley will be ready for Week 1. His rehab workload continues to increase, and at the end of this I have a suspicion the Giants will say they were overly overly-cautious, but that it was worth it all along. And they'll have a point.
I came to Giants camp hoping to see Jones build on his relationship with Kenny Golladay, but the receiver's apparent hamstring injury prevented that. New York has a slew of options at WR2, WR3 and WR4, but Golladay's availability is going to determine whether the Giants will have a reliable WR1 option for the first time in three years.
I believe the defense will take care of itself again this season under the leadership of Patrick Graham. I think with Barkley's return, Jones will be able to carry about better run fakes on play action and Jason Garrett will be able to open up the playbook. And they'll need the injury luck on their side in 2021.
But what will determine which side of 8-8-1 this Giants team winds up being on are the little things. Just as much as it'll be about who gets in fights at training camp, it'll be about how they respond.
"We're going to be a chippy, grimey group," Ryan said Tuesday. "...You need a tough locker room. I've been in a couple of tough locker rooms and I've won a couple Super Bowls and I know what it takes. I know what those training camps are like. It wasn't my first time being part of a training camp fight. Wasn't my first lap, wasn't my first F-bomb, my first pushup. I've been in this for quite some time. It's not necessary all the time, but I understand there is a lot of passion out there. And I'll take passion."