Sports

How the New York Giants Screwed Up Saquon Barkley

The team turned a special talent into a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation.

Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants runs for a first down while being chased by Foyesade Oluokun #54 of the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium.
Barkley runs for a first down while being chased by Foyesade Oluokun of the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Sarah Stier/Getty Images

When running back Saquon Barkley is really revved up, he radiates joy in a way that’s hard to describe but unmistakable for people who are familiar with his game. Barkley at his best runs circles around people and makes it look easy. He is less running than he is floating, and it is quite a scene to watch a football player glide around people in the manner of a fully operational Barkley. It sounds and is corny, but a classic Barkley run will give you a fleeting feeling that the human body can do just about anything. Like this Rose Bowl classic against USC in 2017:

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In my old blogging job, we once collected 43 cool Barkley highlights in one blog post, because we thought they were fun to just gawk at. It is also fun just to see Barkley looking happy. This is a man who has a great smile and will flash it to fans while eating their chicken tenders. Notice that all those things happened at Penn State, where Barkley played in college. None of them happened with the New York Giants, who took Barkley No. 2 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.

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Barkley is a special player, but in large part because of who the Giants are, he hasn’t had a chance to show it for the long term, and his career has degraded to the point where he can’t possibly be the thing that makes the Giants less miserable after four straight missed postseasons (going on five). The Giants have put themselves in a situation in which Barkley’s time with the team is guaranteed to end in disappointment, no matter how they proceed from here. And insofar as watching a productive, happy Barkley is good for football fans in general, we can all join Giants fans in their sadness. How did this happen?

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Barkley was a scouting combine marvel, had the tape and stats to back up his physical gifts, and became an immediate star. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and seemed to have nothing but more joy ahead of him, at least if you were willing to believe joy was possible as the running back for the current iteration of the Giants. So it sucks that we’re sitting here in Barkley’s fourth season, and he’s just had his best football moment in almost exactly two years—and yet the main news story about him after the game was Barkley insisting to a reporter, “I don’t think we’re a bad team. There are no bad teams in the NFL.”

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The good moment on Sunday was Barkley diving over the goal line for his first touchdown since 2019. The bad was everything after his score and a two-point conversion put New York up, 14-7. The Giants didn’t score again and wound up letting the Atlanta Falcons nab their first win of the year on a buzzer-beating field goal, 17–14. The still-winless Giants have been bad since before Barkley arrived and will probably be bad after he’s gone, whenever that day comes.

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Metaphorically, the game’s outcome felt a little too on the nose, like the encapsulation of several Giants failures over the past half-decade coming to a head.

The NFL has been gradually, collectively arriving at the conclusion that running backs are not good investments in the league’s salary-capped system. It’s become clear to most teams that you can find effective backs late in the draft, or even in undrafted free agency. When teams give ball-carriers big contracts, they are derided. Last offseason, the biggest deal a running back signed in free agency had a maximum total value of $11 million over two years, a drop in the bucket compared to the going rates for top linemen, defensive backs, edge rushers, receivers, tight ends, and of course quarterbacks. The devaluation of running back labor isn’t worth celebrating, but it makes sense. Passes have been rising and rushes declining league-wide for well over a decade. Running backs have short primes and are rarely good once they hit 30. They need offensive linemen to blow open holes for them, so maybe it’d be a better idea to pave the road before worrying about who’s going to drive on it. And on and on.

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This mindset toward running backs was already the league’s status quo when Giants general manager Dave Gettleman took Barkley with the second pick in 2018. Gettleman is one of the last true believers in running back value, and the year before, he’d made what turned out to be a good pick for the Carolina Panthers when he grabbed Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey eighth overall. (Despite missing 13 games to injuries last season and injuring his hamstring Thursday leading to another absence, McCaffrey remains widely regarded as one of the very best players in football.) But the Barkley pick hasn’t worked out nearly as well, and while it’s hard to fault Barkley for how the Giants have constructed their team, it’s turned into a good frame of reference for the franchise’s general problems.

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As a rookie, Barkley was all the Giants could’ve hoped. He was one of the most elusive backs in the NFL according to data from Sports Reference, with a broken tackle every 8.7 attempts, the eighth-best figure in the league. The Giants’ yards per carry went from 3.9 to 4.7, with Barkley doing most of the mail-toting. Barkley’s personal 5.0-yard average carry was ninth in the NFL, despite Barkley finishing 22nd among running backs in yards before contact. In other words: The Giants weren’t blazing much of a trail for him, but he was such a rich talent that he still produced. The offense improved, and Barkley was a big reason, though the Giants also got better play from Eli Manning after Odell Beckham Jr. returned from a 2017 injury. The team went 5–11.

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It’s been generally downhill from there. In 2019, Barkley missed three games and struggled with an ankle problem for much of the year. The numbers say he got easier to bring down, breaking one tackle every 13.6 carries. He had less room to operate, getting just 1.8 yards before contact. His overall yards per touch dropped from 5.8 to 5.4. The Giants were bad, and they fired coach Pat Shurmur and replaced him with Bill Belichick disciple Joe Judge, who has also been bad and seems destined for the usual firing that awaits ex-Belichick assistants.

In 2020, Barkley tore his ACL in the second game and missed the last 14: a risk for any football player, probably not helped by being chased and tackled several times per drive over multiple seasons. In 2021, he’s back and hopefully healthy (after a brief scare on Sunday), but he hasn’t been able to get out of neutral in three games. He has averaged 4 yards per touch, which is 64th in the league, and, per the tracking at Sports Reference, he’s yet to break a tackle this season. (Subjective film reviewers might reach different conclusions, but he certainly hasn’t been his old self.) The slipperiness that used to vex anyone who tried to tackle him hasn’t shown up in a long time. How could it? Barkley can invent space where none exists, but only to a point, and the outer limit of that power is less expansive after a major injury in the NFL than before one in the Big Ten East. The Giants’ offensive line, which Pro Football Focus ranked the worst in football coming into this season, wouldn’t facilitate a good season even if Barkley were at full health.

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And even if the Giants gave Barkley more operating space, it’s not clear how good he’d be off his ACL rehab. Were Daniel Jones to suddenly become something more than a below-average QB, or if tight end Evan Engram got better at catching and holding onto the ball, Barkley and the Giants would still have to contend with the difficulty of staying healthy and productive at a position where doing so is not easy. That’s why most teams wouldn’t spend a No. 2 overall pick on a running back. But if you’re going to do it, you can’t put him in unwinnable situations afterward.

Soon, the Giants are going to find themselves in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation. After 2022, the last year of Barkley’s rookie deal, the Giants can throw him what might need to be a fat contract extension, and sink more of their cap space into a brilliant but reduced running back who might not be able to be brilliant in the Giants’ current hellscape. Again, if Gettleman and Judge—or their replacements—want any running back to succeed, they need to rebuild their offensive line into a unit that is not the worst one in the league or close to it, into a line that can better protect whoever runs the ball. That’s probably going to take more than a single offseason. The other option is: They can let him leave, admit failure with a No. 2 overall draft pick, and hope Barkley, who will be 26 when the 2023 season kicks off, does not land in a better situation where he causes them nightmares.

I would like Barkley to make all the money in the world somewhere other than with the Giants. It might be to everyone’s benefit. For the Giants, continuing to lean on a mega-talented, soon to be mega-expensive running back who isn’t equipped to dominate there won’t be of much use. For the rest of us, Barkley is supposed to be a ray of NFL sunshine, but there won’t be any sunlight to soak up until the Giants make changes that are much bigger than Barkley.

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