For one beautiful moment, Saquon Barkley was back. He had it all again, from the jolting moves, to the knee-buckling cuts, to the rocket-like burst of speed. It was as if the last two injury-plagued years didn’t even happen.
But that was it. That’s all there was.
“I know I can do it,” Barkley said. “I’ve still got it. I’ve just got to do it more.”
He’s right. If the Giants are going to make this miracle run at an unlikely playoff berth this season, they’re not going to be able to do it without a vintage Barkley – something they have rarely seen way back in his rookie season. They cannot rely on a passing game that has been unreliable for the last two seasons. They have enough problems moving the ball without becoming one-dimensional, too.
What they need is more of what they saw with 10:45 remaining in the second quarter of what became a 13-7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. On first down, with the Giants backed up on their own 13, Barkley took a handoff on a draw play and worked his magic. He started up the middle, leaned to his right and then cut a little to his left, but couldn’t find a hole anywhere. So he hopped further to his left, bounced to the outside and took off up the sidelines, outracing several Eagles defenders for a 32-yard gain.
That was something he seemed to do regularly back in 2018 when he was one of the NFL’s most dangerous weapons and the Offensive Rookie of the Year. He always seemed to have the moves and the speed to turn nothing into something. But on Sunday, it was a one-off. He would gain just eight yards on 12 other carries. And he would only have 21 yards on the 16 other times he touched the ball.
That’s not nearly good enough now that Joe Judge and his new play-caller, Freddie Kitchens, have made it clear they want to focus their offense on their best players – like Barkley. That’s not going to work if Barkley can only be a one-hit wonder every week.
“I know I’m going to continue to get better and better each week and each day,” Barkley said. “Continue to trust myself, trust my body. But I know it’s not like … What’s the Space Jam monster’s name? It’s not like something came and just took everything away from me.”
Maybe the Space Jam “Monstars” haven’t stolen his talent, but the way his body has been ravaged by injuries over the last three seasons, it’s unclear how much of it is still there. He managed to mostly play through the high ankle sprain that cost him three games in 2019 and managed to look a little like himself by the end of that season. But in some ways he’s still recovering from the torn ACL that ended his last season in September.
And in just seven games this year, interrupted by another sprained ankle, Barkley has just 260 yards rushing and another 174 receiving and he hasn’t come close to looking like his old self. He’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry and only 4.5 yards every time he touches the ball – nearly a yard off his career pace in each category entering this year.
“I’ve got to be more productive in the run game for us,” Barkley said. “We’ve got to be more productive in the run game as a whole.”
He’s right, and he’s also right that it’s not just all about him. The Giants’ offensive line has been terrible lately and its run blocking has been particularly atrocious. There were a few runs where maybe Barkley could have squeezed through a hole for another yard or two, and perhaps the old Barkley would’ve been better able to create his own room. But for the most part, the holes to run through simply weren’t there.
Of course, it’s not like Barkley is creating anything for himself in the open field either. His four catches on Sunday went for just 13 yards – a dismal 3.3 yards per reception. Surely the vintage Barkley would’ve had enough wiggle and burst to do a little better than that.
If he can, that could do wonders for the Giants down the stretch. If he becomes more than a once-a-game threat, defenses will have to key more on him, which will open up a lot more for players like Kenny Golladay and (eventually) Kadarius Toney in the passing game. The ability to run adds more of a threat to play-action and run-pass option (RPO) plays too, which puts opposing pass rushers on their heels – something quarterback Daniel Jones and his porous offensive line could really use.
To do that, they don’t even need Barkley to be all of what he was as a rookie, when he rushed for 1,307 yards, caught 91 passes for 721 yards, and scored 15 touchdowns. It’s a good bet that after four years and too many injuries, that version of Barkley is gone for good.
But if he can channel at least some of that for a few games down the stretch, that really could change everything for the Giants offense. And Judge has made it clear Barkley will at least get that chance.
“When your head coach is coming out saying that,” Barkley said, “it makes you be like, ‘I’ve got to take accountability and make the plays.’”
Yes he does. And not just one play, either. That one play was perfect and memorable and brought everyone back to his glorious past. But it won’t help if he can’t do it again and again and again. Age and injuries have turned Barkley into a boom-or-bust player.
They need a lot more boom, and a lot less bust, the rest of the way.