It was only a few minutes after Roger Goodell had called their names from the podium on a gigantic stage at AT&T Stadium when Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold saw one another. Barkley, the Giants’ newly drafted running back at No. 2 overall, and Darnold, the star quarterback who fell to the Jets one pick later, smiled as they embraced.
“Congratulations. See you in New York,” Barkley told Darnold.
And so began the NFL careers of two players who will go a long way toward determining the fates of two teams that are desperate for their unique skillsets. Barkley offers the Giants a dynamism at running back they rarely have enjoyed, while Darnold is being counted on as the franchise quarterback the Jets haven’t had since the days of Joe Namath.
Giants and Jets fans caught glimpses of what both players can do when they made their preseason debuts at MetLife Stadium, with Barkley dashing 39 yards off right tackle on his very first carry on Thursday night against the Browns and Darnold showing the composure of a veteran in his first live NFL action 24 hours later against Atlanta.
It is a rare moment in time when both teams can simultaneously rally around this kind of elite talent, and there is reason to hope for each club.
“Just excited to live my life and live the dream I planned,” Barkley said after the Browns game. “Just go out there and be a little kid again and play football.”
Darnold used the word “awesome” nearly half a dozen times in his post-game interview, satisfied with how his first game went and optimistic about more to come in the future.
“It was awesome,” the former USC star said of his two-minute scoring drive near the end of the first half. He also called it “awesome to be able to learn from” veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. “I think this just kind of goes to how much I’ve grown in terms of my patience in the pocket and being able to find guys and just feel – have some awareness of when the pocket is closing and when I need to run and when I have time to get rid of [the ball].”
All in all, an awesome start for both players.
But as we have seen so many times in this meat-grinder of a league, promising starts do not always end with championship seasons. There is surely some heartbreak along the way for both players, and no amount of optimism can prevent the kind of growing pains that inevitably lie ahead. Barkley will have games when he is stuffed repeatedly at the line of scrimmage – his other four carries on Thursday went for a combined total of just four yards – and he won’t enjoy the kind of open-field brilliance that made him a star at Penn State.
Barkley plays in a league in which defenders are faster and stronger than those he faced in college, and there are many punishing hits to be taken before we know whether he will dominate the NFL as only the handful of great running backs of the past have done. Barkley was drafted by an old-school general manager who believes two of the primary tenets of success in the NFL are running the ball and stopping the run, so it’s not certain that Dave Gettleman’s first pick as the Giants’ front-office boss will fit in today’s pass-first NFL.
But if the Giants are to play in Gettleman’s image, then Barkley is the perfect back to do it. Fast, strong, quick and smart, equally adept at running between the tackles and taking short passes out of the backfield. Like all rookie runners, he is adapting to the important responsibilities of pass protection, and there undoubtedly will be some hiccups along the way. That dazzling run against the Browns offered a delectable preview of what might come, and the Giants can count on him with plenty more.
Yet Gettleman has opened himself up to some second-guessing by taking a running back and not one of the top quarterbacks in this year’s class. He concluded early on in his film study of the Giants that 37-year-old Eli Manning still has something left on his fastball, and that the addition of Barkley, as well as a refurbished offensive line that was at the heart of the team’s offensive problems last year, would greatly assist Manning in his twilight years.
Gettleman understands the business and is prepared to take the heat if this doesn’t work out. And rest assured, there will be plenty of heat should it turn out that Manning isn’t what he once was, and that the sands of the hourglass are indeed running out on the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
The criticism will only be compounded if Darnold becomes a star the way Manning did with the Giants when he won the first of two Super Bowls more than a decade ago. Manning has been the greatest quarterback in franchise history, but no one beats Father Time. That’s why it’s imperative that Barkley make an immediate impact and Manning shows definitively that he still can get the job done in this, his 15th NFL season.
But if that is not the case, and if Darnold shows he can become the next best thing to Namath in the coming years, then Gettleman’s decision to spurn a big-time quarterback for a big-time running back will be remembered as a critical turning point. It’s an issue Giants’ fans have in the back of their minds, especially with Darnold serving as a constant reminder of what might have been.
Then again, this may turn into a win-win for both franchises. Barkley might be the missing piece in a Giants’ offense that was at the heart of last year’s 3-13 debacle, while Darnold could be the answer – finally – to a decades-long search for a championship quarterback.
Barkley and Darnold embraced the chance to play in the same town and under the glare of the New York spotlight, and their moment has arrived.
As Darnold might say: awesome.