Practice is over, and so is the workout in the weight room. Giants rookie running back Paul Perkins sits at his locker, drinking a recovery shake from a clear plastic cup and talking about the runners he came to admire while growing up in Chandler, Arizona.
He smiles as he warns a visitor that it will take some time going through his list.
“I have a lot of names,” he said. “I loved Marshall Faulk, Brian Westbrook, Eddie George, Steven Jackson, Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis. I liked Marshawn Lynch when he was first with the Bills. I saw Emmitt Smith toward the tail end of his career. And I liked to watch Curtis Martin. I try to model myself after them.”
That’s quite a collection of elite tailbacks, four of whom — Smith (Cowboys, Cardinals), Faulk (Colts, Rams), Bettis (Steelers) and Martin (Patriots, Jets) — are in the Hall of Fame. They run the gamut of small and shifty (Westbrook in Philadelphia), flat-out burners (“Fast” Willie Parker of the Steelers), explosive between-the-tackles runners (Smith and Martin), punishing inside runners (the Titans’ George, the Rams’ Jackson and Lynch, a first-round pick of the Bills who made his name with the Seahawks).
But for Perkins, two traits tie them together. “They’re all very fluid and smooth in their motions,” he said. “And they all had really great vision.”
Perkins is carrying a little bit of all of them as he tries to make a name for himself in the NFL. The fifth-round rookie out of UCLA is offering the first hints that he may be at least part of the solution to one of the Giants’ most vexing problems.
The Giants rank dead last in the NFL in rushing, averaging 68.2 yards per game — a number that is dwarfed by the Cowboys’ league-leading total of 165.2. Although the passing game is the focal point with Eli Manning and receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz and now Roger Lewis Jr., the Giants still need at least some semblance of a running attack to keep defenses honest and offer the kind of balance that coach and play-caller Ben McAdoo wants.
Perkins could become a difference-maker. In the Giants’ first game back from their bye week, he had as many carries as starter Rashad Jennings, who is averaging only 2.6 yards per carry. Perkins had a season-high 11 carries for 32 yards and seemed to grow more confident as the game went on.
“I think the more anybody plays, the more confident they’re going to start to feel,” said Perkins, who had 2,915 yards and 23 touchdowns in his final two years at UCLA before joining the Giants. “The more I’m out there, the better I feel, and the better feel I have for the game. It’s just getting more reps, and that’s beneficial for me.”
If the Giants’ running game is to amount to more than three yards and a cloud of dust — actually, it’s more like two yards — the 5-10, 208-pound running back may be the answer. McAdoo has cut back on his use of tailback Bobby Rainey, offering Perkins a more prominent role. The Giants enter the second half at 5-3, but once the weather turns colder and the elements come into play, the running game has to improve for them to make a playoff run.
“Even if we’re not gaining a whole lot of yards, it’s just keeping the defense honest,” Perkins said. “We have the tools. We have the offensive linemen, the running backs, to make this happen. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. But I just think our running game is going to take time.”
The biggest issue for Perkins isn’t necessarily the running part of his responsibilities. It’s the blocking and protection schemes for the quarterback, which often is the case with a rookie running back.
“I think all offenses in this league, that’s the biggest hurdle for a rookie to overcome, is trying to learn the protections,” McAdoo said. “And not just learn them, but when the ball is snapped, play fast and know not just where the No. 1 [player to be blocked] is, but where the No. 2 in your scan shows up.”
Perkins thinks he’s got the hang of it, although there’s still a ways to go. “I can always improve on defensive recognition, seeing the play before the play,” he said. “That’s what Rashad preaches to me all the time — seeing what’s going on before it actually happens, so I have a better sense for how I’m going to set it up.”
Perkins is likely to see plenty of action in Monday night’s game against the Bengals at MetLife Stadium, and the challenge will be contending with Cincinnati’s vaunted defensive line. He’d love to put on a performance worthy of one of the all-time greats he mentioned.
These things take time, and Perkins is still feeling his way through the process. But if the running game is to be a factor — and the Giants desperately want that to happen — he mostly likely will be a big part of it.