A collective sigh emanated from the New York Giants organization and its fanbase after escaping Sunday Night Football with a dubious 20-12 victory over the rival Washington Commanders.
Aside from Washington committing a massive mental error with an illegal formation on what could have been the game-tying touchdown run with 1:03 left to play and an obvious defensive pass interference call missed in the end zone, New York can't be upset with the outcome itself.
However, the short-term relief doesn't provide long-term clarity. The opposite seems to be the case since the 8-5-1 Giants appear to be well on their way to a postseason appearance as the NFC's current sixth seed. Yet the team played poorly throughout the contest, particularly on offense, where major offseason decisions loom.
What becomes of quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley could ultimately be decided over the next three (or more) contests.
Giving credit where it's due, first-year head coach Brian Daboll has his team performing well above expectations. Big Blue posted one winning campaign over the last 10 seasons. That effort occurred seven years ago.
With one win during their final three contests, Daboll and Co. will be on the right side of the ledger, and the Giants' new leader will be in the conversation for NFL Coach of the Year.
Support for Daboll's candidacy primarily involves getting as much as he possibly can from a clearly limited offense. Against Washington, New York's offense—which ranks among the bottom half of the league in both total offense and scoring—managed 288 yards and only one touchdown.
Both Jones and Barkley are previous top-10 selections in contract years. New York's front office already chose not to pick up its quarterback's fifth-year rookie option.
Despite the relatively sluggish start to Jones' career and Barkley's extensive injury history, the idea of keeping them both for at least one more season seemed prudent. However, the path next year seems murkier today than it did during the first half of the season.
Initially, Jones' play seemed primed for the franchise tag. The 2019 sixth-overall selection performed more efficiently and cut down on turnovers, and Daboll allowed him to be a bigger part of the ground game. It worked...for a time.
During New York's current 1-3-1 streak, Jones' effectiveness has diminished. Despite Sunday's victory, Washington's aggressive front forced the Giants' quarterback to get the ball out quickly to avoid getting pressured into mistakes. To be fair, New York did enough on offense to ultimately win. Yet 195 total yards from the game's most important position isn't going to be good enough in many cases.
Jones is a middling quarterback. Coming into New York's latest outing, the fourth-year signal-caller ranked 16th in quarterback rating (91.6), 14th in QBR (55.6), 23rd in average yards per attempt (6.8) and tied for 23rd with 12 passing touchdowns. None of those numbers improved with his latest effort.
The organization must start asking itself whether Jones is their guy for at least one more year or if he's holding back the entire offense. So much can be schemed to help him, and Daboll's staff is doing an excellent job in doing so. But the Giants expected a quarterback who could eventually develop into someone to carry the offense.
Jones isn't, nor has he been at any point in his career to date. A strong finish to this season during a postseason push could go a long way toward helping with the team's decision.
"My mindset's been the same the whole way. I don't think it doesn't change now just because we're later in the season," Jones told reporters last week. "I'm going to focus on playing as well as I can and when the season is over. I'll look back and have a more complete thought about that. I'm just trying to play as well as I can."
Certainly, better wide receiver play could be beneficial. The Giants are basically devoid of talent outside the numbers. Richie James and Isaiah Hodgins led the way Sunday with a combined eight catches for 79 yards. Even so, it's another excuse to serve as a crutch for a player who hasn't definitively staked his claim as the guy to lead the franchise.
The Giants should consider drafting a raw but gifted quarterback option like Kentucky's Will Levis or Florida's Anthony Richardson in next year's first round to develop like Daboll once did with Josh Allen in Buffalo. Barkley can remain the workhorse in 2023 while the franchise adds more at wide receiver as well.
Right now, the offense belongs to Barkley as its focal point. However, even he's had his struggles. The NFL's fourth-leading rusher hasn't been as effective as of late. Prior to Sunday's 87-yard outburst, Barkley posted rushing totals of 28, 63, 39 and 22 during the previous four contests.
Opposing defenses bottled him up, though he helped salt away New York's latest victory with runs of 12, 15, and 14 to start the Giants' final scoring drive that extended the lead to eight points.
Those moments show exactly where the coaching staff believes the ball should be when the game is on the line. In fact, Barkley ran the ball six times compared to one pass for Jones during the critical drive.
But the fact the fifth-year back hasn't been as effective as of late should create some pause when automatically handing out a contract extension. If anything, the franchise tag may be a far more prudent avenue. For comparison, the franchise tag on a running back is $20.1 million cheaper than placing the designation on a quarterback.
When approached about the subject earlier this season, Barkley and the team didn't seem to be close on a specific number.
"We got into a little bit of conversation," Barkley said in November before the two sides tabled talks. "At the end of the day, I put that in the past. That was the bye week. Obviously, we weren't able to come to an agreement during the bye week, and my mindset is just focus on the rest of the season. Next week going against Detroit and knowing when that opportunity comes up again, focus on it then."
Coincidentally, the back's downturn in production began a week after those comments.
Two years from now, the offense can be built fully in Daboll's image potentially without Jones or Barkley on the roster.
Daboll and new general manager Joe Schoen have done the best possible job they could do with the roster they inherited. They should find out over the next few weeks whether the current construction is capable of becoming a consistent competitor or worthy of deconstruction. The most likely path forward is one of a slight teardown and a quick rebuild after paying for the sins of general managers past.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.