Jones was 6 years old when the Panthers made the Super Bowl for the first time in the 2003 postseason, and that was the year he found his childhood sports heroes. Jones loved Julius Peppers, Muhsin Muhammad, Mike Rucker, Stephen Davis and especially Jake Delhomme — because Jones wanted to be a quarterback, too. Jones’ favorite all-time Carolina player, though, was Steve Smith because of his combination of talent and toughness.
On Sunday at 1 p.m. in New Jersey, Jones gets to see the Panthers up close again — not from the stands this time, but from the field. As the starting quarterback for the New York Giants, the Charlotte native will try to beat his hometown team when he plays against them for the first time in his young NFL career.
“I grew up in Charlotte and I was a Panthers fan for as long as I can remember,” Jones said. The Jones family has owned permanent seat licenses since the team’s inception and still lives in Charlotte. The Jones family has held on to those Panther tickets, too, even though things have changed since Jones became the NFL’s No. 6 overall draft pick in 2019 and was anointed as Eli Manning’s heir apparent.
“Daniel grew up as a very committed Panthers fan,” said Steve Jones, Daniel’s father. “Panther games were a big part of our Sundays. But obviously our allegiances have shifted now. Daniel is a New York Giant — and so we are all in, 100% Big Blue.”
Jones’ third NFL season hasn’t started well. He sustained a concussion on Oct. 10 against Dallas, although he didn’t miss a game. The Giants are 1-5 and have even more injuries than the 3-3 Panthers, especially at the offensive skill positions. Jones had four turnovers last week in a 38-11 loss to the L.A. Rams and was sacked on the game’s very first play from scrimmage. The Giants were booed numerous times by their home fans.
“It’s been tough, and certainly not the start we expected and hoped for,” Jones said. “We’ve been in some close games, and haven’t pulled them out. But we’re still a confident team.”
To play his hometown team, Jones offered, was “pretty cool,” even though he was going to try his hardest to beat Carolina on Sunday.
“Charlotte is definitely a special place to me,” Jones said. “It’s where I grew up. I really spent my whole life in North Carolina until a few years ago when I moved up here. It was an awesome place to grow up and to play different sports. (Jones was also a strong basketball player and once played for a travel team coached by ESPN analyst and Charlotte resident Jay Bilas.) There are still a lot of people there who I’m very appreciative to, for helping me out along the way.”
Daniel Jones ‘a classic late bloomer’
Jones’ rise to NFL starting quarterback and top-10 draft pick had more in common with the turtle than the rabbit.
He was the starting quarterback at Charlotte Latin for three years and the second-oldest of four siblings in an extremely athletic family. But Jones had trouble with recruiting interest from any of the major conferences. Rated a two-star recruit by 247Sports at the time, he was close to going to Princeton. Then Jones’ legendary high school head coach, Larry McNulty, pleaded for friend and Duke head coach David Cutcliffe to take a look at Jones’ film.
“Daniel was a classic late bloomer,” McNulty said. “He was probably 5-10 and 148 pounds as a freshman, but he just kept growing (to 6-5 and 230 pounds today). Daniel also sustained a broken bone in his throwing wrist at a critical time for recruiting, and that knocked him out of a lot of the recruiting showcases and combines. But once Cutcliffe saw his film, he said, ‘Don’t send it off to anyone else. We want him.’ ”
At Charlotte Latin, Jones was always a competitive player and dogged worker. He steadily got bigger and better. McNulty, who coached there 32 years and won 11 state championships until retiring after the 2017 season, said: “Daniel would have been the best free safety the school ever saw by a mile if I’d let him play defense, too. But I didn’t.”
Jones didn’t win a state championship quarterbacking Latin, though. His younger brother Bates did, however. He followed Daniel at quarterback and has since played college basketball at Davidson and now, after transferring, Duke.
“Bates could really throw it, too,” McNulty said. “He could have been a college quarterback if that’s what he had wanted.”
The other two Jones siblings are girls. The oldest of the four, Becca, played field hockey at Davidson. The youngest, Ruthie, is now the starting goalkeeper for Duke’s women’s soccer team, currently 11-2-1 and ranked No. 6 in the country.
In other words, it was very hard to keep up with the Joneses at Charlotte Latin, no matter who you were.
Daniel Jones was 3-0 for Duke vs. UNC
When Daniel Jones got to college, he continued to steadily get better.
He was originally supposed to walk on at Duke for his first year, but another player was injured and a scholarship came available. Wearing Delhomme’s old No. 17 Panthers number for Duke, Jones ended up a three-year starter. He had superior arm strength a fearlessness as a runner. In one 42-35 win over North Carolina in 2018, he threw for 361 yards and ran for 186 more. He went 3-0 against the Tar Heels as a starter.
Still, Duke was a team that hovered around .500 in all three of Jones’ seasons as a starter (2016-18). A lot of people didn’t think Jones would be drafted quite as high as he was in 2019. But New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman — who was also the Panthers’ GM for the Super Bowl run of 2015 before getting fired in 2017 — fell in what Gettleman would later call “full bloom love” with Jones after watching him throw at the Senior Bowl.
Jones took over for the Giants as a rookie starter in Week 3 of 2019, as the Giants decided they’d replace Eli Manning sooner rather than later. Since then, he’s had some nice games — he threw for 402 yards in a win vs. New Orleans Oct. 3 — and showed enough promise to keep the starting job for three years. But the end product hasn’t been good. In Jones’ 32 games as an NFL starter, the Giants are 9-23.
In some ways, the early part of Jones’ career has been similar to current Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, who was drafted the year before Jones in 2018. Darnold went 13-25 in three years as the New York Jets starter before the Panthers traded for him in April. Darnold shared some of the same characteristics as Jones during the time the two overlapped — a strong arm, an inadequate New York team built around him and an occasional penchant for unfortunate turnovers. Jones said he and Darnold know each other “pretty well” from sharing MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey the Giants and Jets generally alternate home games on Sundays.
“Sam has been fun to watch,” Jones said. “I think he’s a great player and I’m always, always pulling for him.”
Well, almost always.