Maybe there was a time in his career when Saquon Barkley would have tried to think like a team executive or general manager and applied some deeper meaning into the moves and non-moves that happen around him.
He might have chosen to believe, for instance, that the Giants’ decision to not trade him before the deadline passed earlier this week was some kind of renewed commitment to him, a tea leaf suggesting they want him to stick around for a very long time and will be working toward that contractual goal once the offseason begins.
Heck, they even pulled him aside — and him alone among the players it seems — to tell him overtly, specifically, that they were not going to listen to the number of calls they would be bound to receive about his availability. That has to count for something, right?
The old Barkley, ever the optimist, ever the dreamer, might have thought so.
This new more worldly version of Barkley has learned better than to read into anything.
This tag-scarred Barkley is having none of it.
“I don’t see it that way,” he said on Thursday, still a Giant, still playing on the one-year contract he was force-fed this past offseason. “To say they are recommitting? I don’t focus on that at all. I just know that it’s the NFL. There’s really nothing I can do about it.”
That doesn’t mean he wants out. Giant For Life is a title that still appeals to him, just as it still does for co-owner John Mara who hasn’t changed his position since saying of Barkley in the spring: “My dream is that he plays his whole career as a Giant like Eli [Manning] did, like [Michael] Strahan did, like Tiki [Barber] did.”
It just means both sides now have their eyes fully open regarding their possible future together. Before this past offseason there was only one side that did.
“It’s business,” Barkley said of the franchise tag. “Really not much I can do about it. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”
It probably will.
The Giants have the right to apply the franchise tag to Barkley a second time this coming offseason for a still reasonable salary of a little over $12 million. Assuming they have the cap space to handle that — and they should — it would be the most direct and cost-efficient way to keep him on the 2024 team. He could become the face of the franchise as it celebrates its 100th season, be the front man for all the festivities, and after that he’ll be a 28-year-old seven-year veteran and they can either pay him accordingly or let him walk.
That he’ll be on the field Sunday at the same time as a different running back in the same situation with a different team, Josh Jacobs of the Raiders, will be yet another reminder of that cold reality.
“The Giants, the Raiders, they had leverage,” Barkley said. “There really wasn’t much I could have done or he could have done to be completely honest … Two guys handled it two different ways [Barkley participated in training camp while Jacobs sat out] and came out with pretty similar scenarios.”
There is still some naivete to Barkley, though. It’s a little misguided, but actually endearing.
He spoke on Thursday about his goal to stick around long enough to become the Giants’ all-time leading rusher. He just moved into fifth place (4,661), passing Alex Webster on that list Sunday and puffed his chest a bit on that accomplishment. If he stays healthy, at his current pace he could pass Brandon Jacobs (5,087) and Joe Morris (5,296) this season. That would land him third.
But the age of running backs staying in one place long enough to ascend to the top of any franchise’s all-time anything list feels pretty much over. They are no longer valued enough to get the lengthy contracts they once did with the kinds of residencies that lead to such record-breaking. Even the best of them bounce from team to team now, and the ones that remain in place do so because they have no recourse against the franchise tag.
Barkley isn’t even halfway to the 10,449 rushing yards Tiki Barber had during his Giants career. He’d have to have at least another five 1,000-yard seasons to start a countdown.
That doesn’t stop him from aiming for it, though.
“After everything that happened in the offseason and realizing and growing up and seeing the business side of it, knowing that it’s rare for one player to be on one team for a long time,” he said, “that’s something I would love to be part of and I’ve been vocal about that.”
It’s good to know that at least some of that spirit has yet been severed.
He may be jaded, but he’s still Saquon.