The Giants knew what they were getting in terms of Saquon Barkley’s physical talents. A running back with powerful legs who could cut on a dime or bowl over defenders. A player with speed to outrun all but the fastest would-be tacklers. Someone who is as good at catching passes as most wide receivers.
What the Giants may not have counted on was the size of his heart.
Pat Shurmur discovered further evidence of Barkley’s passion for the game — and his team — in last Sunday’s 27-22 win over the Texans. Barkley suffered a bruised knee on his first carry of the afternoon and eventually had to be checked out inside the medical tent on the Giants’ sidelines. But once doctors determined there was no structural damage, he continued playing.
Barkley wound up with 17 carries for 82 yards and one touchdown — a dazzling 15-yard run where he waited patiently for a hole to open at the line of scrimmage and then burst through before dashing to his right and into the end zone. He also had a key third-down catch on what turned out to be a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that put the Giants up by two scores and secured the Giants’ first win of the season.
“When you see it up close and personal, you see the way he’s into it and how competitive his spirit is and how he wants to compete and get the ball in his hands,” Shurmur said. “He’s everything we thought he would be to this point. There’s a reason why he’s got a chance to be a really good player for a very long time.”
Barkley is the centerpiece addition to a team that needs every playmaker it can get. With the Giants’ front office convinced that this team is good enough to win now, if only it surrounds 37-year-old quarterback Eli Manning with the right talent, Barkley’s early emergence is essential to that formula.
Through three games, there is enough evidence to suggest he will continue to be a major part of the offense. He leads the team with 46 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, putting him on pace to gain nearly 1,200 yards for the season. Barkley also has 21 catches for 137 yards.
But beyond the stats, it’s Barkley’s drive — not only to excel individually, but to win — that makes you take notice.
“It’s easy to see that man plays with heart,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “First play of the game [against the Texans], he gets chopped in the knees pretty good, and he acts like it doesn’t faze him, when everybody knows that’s a hard shot to take. There’s no question he has heart, and I think it rubs off on a lot of people as well.”
You never really know about a player until you have him in your locker room and on the practice field every day, and it’s a major reason why the draft is often such a gamble. But general manager Dave Gettleman, who opted not to take a quarterback at No. 2 — even though Eli Manning is clearly nearing the end of his career — was so convinced of how much of a sure thing the Penn State running back was that he felt it was a no-brainer to take him that high.
It remains to be seen whether passing over a quarterback when the likes of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen were on the board was the right decision. But Gettleman is willing to live with the potential second-guess hanging over his shoulder because he believes Barkley will be an indispensable part of his team for years to come.
“I just think he has shown a lot of ability in a lot of the phases that we’ve talked about and so far throughout the preseason and throughout the regular season, he’s shown a lot,” Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson said.
It’s Barkley’s presence that also impresses Johnson.
“I think he’s got a lot of leadership skills, so I think he’s doing what he naturally does and he really feels — the Saquon I know — he really feels like, ‘I’m going to bring energy to this team; I am a rookie but I’m going to bring some energy just like some other guys that are going to bring energy,’” Johnson said. “For the unique ones, no. I think that’s very normal.”
Unique is the right word. There simply aren’t many players with the mix of athletic gifts and inner fortitude that Barkley possesses. It reminds you of another runner who blessed the New York market with his talents over a long and wondrous career. Curtis Martin was as intense a competitor as we’ve ever seen, and he’s got a place in Canton for all he did with the Jets and before that with the Patriots.
Barkley is delighted to be mentioned in that company, because his first NFL idol was Martin. Barkley grew up a Jets fan in the Bronx when Martin starred for the team on the way to gaining 14,101 yards and scoring 90 touchdowns over an 11-year career.
Barkley is light years away from equaling that kind of production. But don’t underestimate his heart, because that’s a big part of what would get him there if he’s fortunate enough to play that long.
The Giants got a glimpse of that competitiveness last weekend in Houston.
“I just wanted to go out there and play for my team and play for my teammates and show them that it’s going to take a lot more than that to make me sit out,” he said of returning from the knee bruise. “I have heart. When I mean I have heart, I’m playing for my team, I’m playing for my teammates. I love to win. I’m a competitor. I’ll do whatever it takes to help my team.”