During a scorching practice last Sunday, the New York Giants lined up for red zone work. Over and over, the ball went to Saquon Barkley to blast his way to the goal line. There was little finesse about this practice two weeks into training camp -- veteran center Jon Feliciano would later call it an "old-school head banger" -- but there was running, of the ball and then of sprints. The tenor of the Giants was changing, with a demand by head coach Brian Daboll to ramp up conditioning and aggressiveness.
Daboll is just months into his tenure as the latest coach to try to pull the Giants out of what has felt like a sleepwalk into the abyss. Just a few miles away, Robert Saleh is a year ahead of him with the New York Jets -- a year ahead in putting his stamp and preferred personnel on the team -- but tasked with essentially the same mandate: create a winner from the ashes of years of missteps.
It's far too early to draw conclusions about where these seasons are headed, although a head-to-head comparison is inevitable -- the Jets and Giants will hold a joint practice in two weeks, hoping to use each other's foibles to fix their own.
With the first full slate of preseason games on tap this week, though, Saleh and Daboll may have already provided an early analysis of where their teams are in their respective rebuilds, and they reflect their very different situations at quarterback. In Florham Park, Saleh is bubbling with anticipation about the leap the Jets believe they are watching second-year quarterback Zach Wilson make. They have the benefit of knowing Wilson was an improved quarterback late last season, and since then, he has noticeably bulked up, organized a passing camp and been more vocal in directing the offense.
"We get to hang out with him every day," Saleh said of Wilson. "We see his everyday process. We hear the questions he's asking. We see his body language. We're constantly watching him, and I feel like we've been around long enough to know when it's good."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Daboll, who first has to figure out if he even wants to keep the quarterback he inherited, Daniel Jones, leavens nearly every assessment of his team with what sounds like a reality check and a nod to patience. "I think we've made progress. I think we still have a long way to go."
The early practices have shown plenty of progress and lots of space for improvement for both teams. There have been pinpoint passes and those that have sailed wide of their intended targets. Blocks have been made and missed. Perhaps most promisingly, the five first-round draft picks the teams drafted last spring, have shown enough flashes to suggest they could make immediate impacts in 2022 -- a requirement if the teams hope to double their respective win totals to eight. In short, the Jets and Giants look like most rebuilding teams do at this time of the year: a little ragged, a lot energetic and entirely unpredictable.
Not surprisingly, given that the Jets' teardown is already in their past, the tone around Florham Park is mostly unbridled optimism. (Though that vibe was tempered on Tuesday by the news that third-year tackle Mekhi Becton is likely out for the season after fracturing his kneecap.) Meanwhile, the Giants, who still have the most critical personnel decision ahead of them, seem more cautiously hopeful.
Still, this is the time of year when expectations are set. The Jets' new tight end, C.J. Uzomah, who was signed from the Cincinnati Bengals, inadvertently set them in the stratosphere for Wilson when it seemed like he was comparing the quarterback to Joe Burrow. Asked what would happen to the Jets if Wilson could make a Year 2 jump like Burrow, who just led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in his sophomore campaign, Uzomah responded that it was not a question of whether Wilson could make such a leap. "He will," the tight end said.
A few days later, Uzomah, shaking his head, wanted to make clear that he was not comparing Wilson to Burrow. He raved about Wilson's arm strength, though.
Uzomah does have unique perspective on the arc of teams that have hit rock bottom and then rebounded. He was, after all, a member of an organization that won just two games in 2019, drafted Burrow, made some smart free-agent signings and nearly won the Super Bowl in February. The Jets and Giants -- any team, really -- would be thrilled with such a rapid turnaround. And while Uzomah said the Jets' offense is still working out the kinks, he is not one to look into the painful past and dismiss the possibility of much better days ahead soon.
"For me, each year I take as a new year," Uzomah said. "I hate dwelling on the past. Coming in hearing, This team's been this and that -- whatever. That team is gone. We have new pieces. Guys have grown up. I think the optimism is rightfully so. If you don't have the belief, you might as well not be on the field."
For the Giants, the most pronounced reason to have faith has been Barkley's good health and the burst and confidence when he carries the ball in camp -- something that has been missing for nearly three years as Barkley has battled injuries. At a recent practice, Barkley hit the holes quickly and lowered his pads to inflict punishment.
Barkley, like Jones, is in the final year of his rookie contract, and their fates are intertwined. Jones is learning his third offense in four years, and especially in the early days of training camp, it was clear the attack was not in sync. That was expected, especially because Daboll's offense features a lot of pre-snap motion and, according to the receivers, more freedom for Jones' targets. That puts a premium on communication and familiarity, both of which the Giants freely admit they have to continue to work on.
Jones said that now, in his fourth year, he is more comfortable with what he sees and with making decisions. He talked about the options this offense gives quarterbacks. Still, he and the offense have been uneven during the early part of training camp. Last week, the unit moved the ball a bit more consistently in practice, and Jones had two solid days, displaying a budding connection with Kenny Golladay, although there were also off-target throws during a scrimmage.
"I think over the last, probably, week to 10 days, I think that communication really has gotten a lot better," Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said. "In the meeting rooms, those guys are getting a lot more vocal. Not just the quarterbacks, but the receivers making sure that, 'Hey Daniel. OK, if it's -- I saw it this way.' And then vice versa. Daniel saying, 'I think you should hit it like this, or show me this body language.' So, I think over the last week, week and a half, things have really gotten a lot better because they're opening up their lines of communication. That's what we're stressing to these guys: Let's talk. Not just receivers and quarterbacks, but O-line. Everyone's got to get on the same page."
Daboll is a believer in live reps, especially for a team that has undergone as much change as his has. He plans to play everyone who is healthy in the preseason opener against the New England Patriots on Thursday.
These games will be the first real chance to measure just how much further the Jets and Giants have to go. Given where they are coming from, it's hard to say what would even count as success this season. Playoff berths, of course. But if those are still likely at least a year away, what would be worth celebrating for two franchises that haven't done much of that in the past decade?
"We all dream, all 32 teams, want the Super Bowl, want the playoffs, want to be division champs," Saleh said. "All players want to be the MVP. We all have long-term dreams. But we still have to have the discipline to reel it back in and know what it takes to get to what those long-term goals are. Dominating every moment. Win the day. Go to bed better than when you woke up."
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