Inside a backstage room at last spring’s NFL draft, Daniel Jones’ friends and family didn’t have long to celebrate him achieving a life-long dream.
They barely even finished exchanging hugs and handshakes when the uproar over how early the New York Giants drafted Jones became too loud to ignore.
Outraged fans at the Giants’ draft party booed their own team for using the sixth overall pick on a quarterback with a losing record at Duke instead of addressing other needs. Bewildered TV analysts also ridiculed the Giants for reaching for Jones at No. 6 rather than waiting to nab him with a later pick. Even fellow quarterback prospect Dwayne Haskins fanned the flames when TV cameras caught him snickering in disbelief after Jones went ahead of him.
“The city of New York went absolutely bonkers because they wanted somebody else and they didn’t want him,” said Jones’ former high school coach, Larry McNulty, who was with the quarterback on draft night. “It bothered me a lot. I was mad. I was like, at least give the kid a chance.”
The same New York fans who panned the selection of Jones on draft night now are itching to anoint him as Eli Manning’s successor just five months later. The rookie followed up a strong preseason with a brilliant performance on Sunday in his NFL debut, throwing a pair of touchdowns and running for two more to spearhead the Giants’ rousing comeback victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The most remarkable aspect of Jones’ sudden transformation from maligned draft pick to rookie savior is how he handled that initial barrage of post-draft criticism. The unflappable 22-year-old didn’t allow the rampant negativity to crush his spirit and sink him, nor did he let the quest to prove his critics wrong leave him bitter and resentful.
Ask Jones’ father when he realized his son would be able to withstand the vitriol aimed at him, and Steve Jones will point to a comment his son made last spring at the height of the clamor. Daniel Jones insisted that he knew who he was, that he was confident in his own ability and that he didn’t intend to waste time worrying about what others thought of him.
"What his comments said to me was that he was grounded enough to do this without letting all that affect him," the elder Jones said. "He seems to have a pretty good understanding of when and how much of what everyone else is saying he needs to concern himself with — and how to keep that from getting in the way of what he needs to do."
If Jones goes on to enjoy a successful career with the Giants, he won’t be the first quarterback to survive a rude draft-night welcome. Boos cascaded down on Donovan McNabb in 1999 from angry Philadelphia Eagles fans who expected their team to select Ricky Williams. Twenty years earlier, baffled Giants fans responded similarly after their team chose a little-known Morehead State quarterback named Phil Simms.
The beginning for Daniel Jones
The obstacles Jones overcame earlier in his football career prepared him unusually well to follow the example set by McNabb and Simms. Brushing off catcalls on draft night is nothing compared to being told you’re too small to play quarterback in high school or not good enough to land a scholarship to a major college.
As a high school freshman, Jones stood 5-foot-10 and weighed only 135 pounds, not exactly the ideal physique for a quarterback. Basketball appeared to be the sport in which he had the most promise until the young point guard had a change of heart early in his high school career.
Jones was watching football with his father one fall weekend when he announced, "Dad, I think I want to play quarterback in college." Knowing that the path to a college scholarship for someone Jones' size might be more achievable at point guard than at quarterback, his father replied, “What makes you want to play quarterback?"
By that point, Jones had studied the position for awhile. He told his father he thought he'd make better decisions distributing the ball than many quarterbacks he'd watched.
"I thought that was a pretty good way for him to come at it," Jones' father says now. “Physically, I couldn’t see that he was going to be 6-5, 220. He was so slight at that stage.”
At that point, it seemed Jones’ edge had to be the mental side.
The first time Jones competed to become the varsity quarterback at Charlotte Latin School, his lack of size and strength diminished his chances. McNulty anointed a strong-armed, out-of-state transfer as his starter entering the 2012 football season. Jones, still only 5-foot-11, 145 pounds, settled for the backup gig.
Everything changed during Charlotte Latin’s season opener that year when the starter struggled and McNulty turned to Jones during the second half. Jones took advantage of the opportunity, playing well enough to not only win the game but also the job.
“The following week, I brought the older kid in and I said, ‘Daniel has earned the right to start,’ ” McNulty said. “The kid left town after that. The dad pulled him out of Latin and went back to the Midwest. I never saw him again. Here I am with a 145-pound sophomore as my quarterback for the rest of the year.”
Too noodle-armed to throw downfield or zip passes into tight windows during his first season as a starter, Jones compensated by making shrewd reads and throwing perfectly timed balls. He also displayed the toughness to withstand crushing hits from bigger kids and pop right back up.
A late growth spurt, more film study and long hours in the weight room helped Jones become a more complete quarterback as an upperclassman, but interest from power-conference college coaches was scarce. Some schools had already identified their quarterback targets for the 2015 class by the time Jones shot up in size. It also didn’t help that Jones broke his wrist late in his junior year and couldn’t participate in some of the region’s most prominent summer camps.
Jones was planning to play for Princeton until after his senior season when McNulty placed a phone call on his behalf. The Charlotte Latin coach urged Duke’s David Cutcliffe to take one last look at Jones’ film to see if he had any interest.
The next morning at 7 a.m., McNulty’s phone rang. It was Cutcliffe calling to beg McNulty not to show the film to any other coaches.
Statistics don’t tell the full story
Because he figured success in the ACC would mean more to NFL scouts than throwing touchdowns in the Ivy League, Jones flipped from Princeton to Duke even though Cutcliffe did not have a scholarship available right away. He started for the Blue Devils his final three years, flashing NFL potential during memorable victories over Notre Dame and North Carolina but never managing to elevate his team to national prominence.
Critics saw his 17-19 career record as a Duke starting quarterback. They overlooked that Jones’ two bowl victories in three seasons were more than the Blue Devils had tallied in the previous five-plus decades.
Critics saw his modest 60.5 percent completion rate as a redshirt junior. They overlooked that his offensive line struggled to keep him upright and that his receivers dropped a startling number of catchable passes.
It also didn’t help Jones that the franchise that reached to draft him had an unpopular general manager and an 8-24 record the past two seasons. Whereas the New England Patriots might get the benefit of the doubt from the public for bucking conventional wisdom with a first-round pick, the Giants were never going to have that luxury.
Those factors combined to inspire indignation and mockery when the Giants selected Jones sixth overall. New York fans even booed Jones in mid-June when Yankee Stadium’s jumbotron showed him during a game.
“Daniel’s human, so I’m sure it hurt him, but he’s so mature and level-headed about things,” McNulty said. “The revenge mode, I’m-going-to-prove-the-world-wrong mindset, I don’t think Daniel thinks like that. I think it just slid right off his back. He knew what he could do, he was confident in his skills and he went to work.”
Sunday’s performance against Tampa Bay was only one game against a subpar opponent, but it made an instant superstar out of Jones in the New York market. Five months after its back-page headline on draft night read “Blue’s Clueless”, the New York Post went with “Dan-O-Mite” after his impressive debut.
To fully appreciate how far things have come for Jones, consider the question Giants coach Pat Shurmur fielded on Wednesday in New York. Asked if his quarterback’s demeanor had changed at all after his confidence-inspiring comeback against the Bucs, Shurmur noted that Jones is no more likely to let in-season praise impact him than he would preseason criticism.
“You’re asking if he has a big head?” Shurmur said. “Is that what you’re asking? No. No. Not at all. I see the same player I saw last week preparing to play his first game.”
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