Daniel Jones' 2019 season, as a whole, was largely disappointing, but the thing about rookie quarterbacks is that we should expect them to be largely disappointing.
On average, a rookie passer is a bad football player, and why wouldn't they be? It’s as unprepared as a player can be for the NFL while playing the most important and complex position on the field.
Expectations should be low for rookies quarterbacks, but Jones' expectations weren't low. Perhaps they were when he first took the field, but galvanizing wins over the Buccaneers in Week 3 and the Redskins in Week 4 gave the Giants hope that their offense could take off in Year 1, as the Cardinals’ would under Kyler Murray or Browns’ under Baker Mayfield.
The New York-Tampa Bay game was certainly exciting, enough so that I wrote about it in the immediate wake of Jones' debut lauding his aggressive throws in downfield windows as rare for a rookie making his first start, especially out of a system as simple as the one Jones enjoyed at Duke. I closed with a thought on the likelihood of Jones' success continuing:
“I watched every single one of Jones' final season games at Duke, and this was the best football I've seen him play. It is a big deal and unlikely to continue; unlikely to continue because NFL defenses are tough, rookie quarterbacks are maddeningly inconsistent and the Giants' offense needs some improvement across the board. It’s a big deal because it imbued Jones and the entire Giants organization with life. For all of the jokes made at his expense, it is hard to watch a quarterback decay in the manner in which Eli Manning had decayed in recent years, and finally putting him on the shelf is a hard thing. It is made easier — not easy, but easier — with a strong debut from his successor, in which both legend and future can share the excitement.”
Jones’ success did not continue, and he became that which he was: a jumpy rookie quarterback, woefully free with the football and scatterbrained against complex defensive shells. He kept drives alive with his legs and his arm, but he killed drives just the same. The roller-coaster went up and down, but the Giants’ record hardly moved. They wouldn't win a game following the Week 4 shellacking of the Redskins until they met them again in Week 15.
New York wasn’t losing under Jones because Jones was bad, it was losing under Jones because the team was bad as a whole and Jones certainly wasn't helping the matter. When you step outside of the results of single games and look at Jones' performance across his rookie year, you’ll see a strong passer. Among rookies who started at least half of their first season in the past decade, Jones had the third-highest touchdown percentage (107) behind Mayfield (112) and Russell Wilson (125), a below-average interception percentage (95) and adjusted yards gained per pass attempt (6.5) and adjusted net yards per pass attempt (5.38) figures right around average for the grouping. Despite going only 3-9 as a starter, he had one of the better rookie seasons we've seen from recent quarterbacks; and speaks to the flaw of only looking at quarterback wins.
Jones won as a passer much as he won as a passer at Duke. He threw against pre-snap leverage with a great understanding of where defenses were going to give him space. He has a zippy arm from adjusted platforms and gelled nicely with former coach Pat Shurmur's heavy underneath approach on offense and figures to continue to work nicely with newly minted Jason Garrett's traditional West Coast spacing concepts. The concern with that transition is that Jones will be asked to determine more post-snap, which is where his greatest issues come. Rotating zones and robbing underneath defenders have confounded Jones for years and continued to do so in his rookie season.
The hope is that Jones will also see his running game further unlocked. In the same group of passers, Jones' 6.2 yards per carry was sixth-best, right below Robert Griffin III, Josh Allen and Marcus Mariota. Those aren't names you often hear with as Jones' company, but he's a shifty passer with good burst in the open field to turn the corner. He also has a big frame to deal some damage to cornerbacks, if need be. Jones was frequently a scrambler and hardly used on designed runs, but rollouts could give him simpler half-field reads to execute as he grows as a post-snap processor while giving him the checkdown of his own legs.
But the biggest hurdle that remains for Jones is ball security. You’d have to go back to David Carr's historic 2002 rookie campaign of unmitigated pressure to find a quarterback with more first-season fumbles (12) than Jones (18). Jones' unwillingness to feel and react to pressure, and his insistence on throwing late and off-platform while getting hit, led to a crippling amount of turnovers that aren't reflected in the passing statistics that shone kindly on him among his peers. If Jones fails to become more risk-averse with the ball in the pocket, he'll never grow into a trustworthy starter in the league.
Jones needs to stick with his money as a passer — quick game, zippy placement — and access more of his running game while still protecting the football. It's never an easy row to hoe for young quarterbacks on bad teams, but the Giants have made strides in improving their offensive line, installed a new coaching staff and now are responsible for taking Jones' predictably bad rookie season and turning it into a more consistent; and thereby more promising sophomore year.