Everything is a negotiation.
That’s just a fact of professional sports in general and the NFL very specifically, as players have only 17 opportunities each regular season to prove themselves worthy of the contracts that are hammered out each spring.
Saquon Barkley spent all of training camp and the first two games of this season on the field trying to prove to the Giants that he is worth more than the $10.1 million franchise tag contract he signed in July and the $12 million-or-so one the team can use on him again if it chooses to do so in March.
Now he will spend a second straight game making his case by not being on the field.
It’s not a business decision by Barkley, who suffered a high ankle sprain late in the comeback win over the Cardinals in Week 2 when he took a fourth-quarter handoff on his 66th offensive snap of the day, having come off the field for one play before that.
That’s not the way Barkley is wired. He’d much rather be out there playing for the Giants than sitting, as he was after being ruled out of Monday night’s game against the Seahawks at MetLife Stadium. He was able to practice in a limited role this past week and came into the day listed as doubtful, but he never even took the field for a pregame workout.
The Giants know he isn’t milking this.
“He never wants to come out of the game,” Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said. “He’s a competitor. That’s what we love about him. Guys like that . . . want to be involved and want the ball. You want players like that, and Saquon is definitely one of those.”
But if his absence happens to demonstrate his value more than his presence does, well, at least it wasn’t a completely lost night for him.
That certainly was the case last week when the Giants played the 49ers without Barkley. They wound up running the ball only 11 times, their fewest rushing attempts since they had 10 in a game in 1989. Matt Breida, Gary Brightwell and Eric Gray rushed for only 29 yards against San Francisco.
In Brian Daboll’s 20 regular-season games as coach of the Giants, the team is 9-5-1 when they rush for at least 100 yards, 1-4 when they don’t.
“We know Saquon is valuable to our offense,” Daboll said this week. “Any time you are missing a good player, you miss a good player.”
That figured to be the case on Monday again, particularly with the Giants’ best offensive lineman, Andrew Thomas, also sidelined after a setback with his hamstring injury in practice last week.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows exactly what the Giants miss without Barkley, even if the Giants don’t want to explicitly say it.
“He has everything,” Carroll has said of Barkley. “He’s got power, he’s got speed, he’s got tremendous elusiveness, and his tackle-breaking ability is as good as anybody that plays the game. And so he poses the ultimate threat.”
There is a flip side to this perceived benefit for Barkley, of course, and it illustrates the balance that the Giants and all teams face when deciding how to structure their deals with running backs. Monday was the 23rd game Barkley has missed because of injury. That includes three games missed in 2019 and four in 2021, both with ankle sprains, and the 14 he missed in 2020 with a torn ACL. If there is a mark against Barkley’s tenure with the Giants, it has been his durability.
Around the league, top-tier running backs are suffering similar fates, with Austin Ekeler and Jonathan Taylor both missing games already, J.K. Dobbins and Nick Chubb out for the season, and every other ballcarrier one hit away from joining them all on the long line for the league’s MRI machines.
Meanwhile, the highest-paid running back in the NFL, Christian McCaffrey, is putting up MVP-type numbers in San Francisco . . . but might wind up being a salary-cap casualty if he doesn’t renegotiate that contract in the coming months.
No sane person would ever say the Giants are a better team without Barkley. Not even the Giants, at their meanest, most desperate point in contract talks, would insinuate that.
And yet . . . The Giants came into Monday’s game with a 9-13 record when Barkley does not play (excluding the season finale in which he and other starters sat out last season in preparation for the playoffs). That’s a winning percentage of .409. In the games Barkley has played since he arrived in 2018, the Giants have been 20-41, or .327.
There are some truly awful teams and miserable seasons mixed into that calculus, to be sure. Not all of it is due to Barkley.
But everything is a negotiation, and like it or not, that process, like this Giants season, carries on with or without him.