Fullbacks usually are pretty nasty guys. Gritty, physical players with ill-tempered dispositions who have to root defenders out of their positions so someone prettier and more appealing can have the glory of running past them.
Frothing at the mouth, bubbles forming at their noses, they’re more often lumped in with offensive linemen than running backs because of not only their similar functions but their comparable fire-breathing temperaments.
And then there is Eli Penny.
He’s anything but gruff. He’s the opposite of surly. He’s a guy who will do the dirty work with a smile on his face. In fact, it’s what put the everlasting grin there to begin with.
“The happy fullback,” Penny chuckled loudly, characterizing himself against the prototype for his position. “It’s crazy!”
Even crazier? That he could be the key to Saquon Barkley having an improved statistical season after the running back won NFL offensive rookie of the year honors last year. Big things are expected of Barkley, and whatever numbers he reaches in 2019, it will be Penny who blazes the path toward them.
The two backfield-mates began to find a chemistry together in the second half of last season, and it’s no coincidence that that’s when Barkley’s production began to skyrocket.
The offensive line’s improvement had a lot to do with it, sure, and its continued development this season also will play a big factor in Barkley’s upcoming successes. But Penny is the one who literally will be leading Barkley through the line of scrimmage, leading him to whatever mind-boggling stats and head-spinning moves he puts forth in 2019.
“He’s very important to our team and I’m very thankful we have him,” Barkley said. “He’s very important to me, too.”
Penny’s positive impact seems to go beyond football, beyond Barkley.
“He’s one of the people in this building that, in my opinion, has never had a bad day,” Pat Shurmur said. “He’s smiling. He may have had a bad play or a bad meal, but he’s never had a bad day. He’s a little bit of an inspiration to me because he just keeps going. He loves the game and he keeps playing.”
From where does that sunniness spring?
“It’s probably because of my history with football,” he said. “My opportunity. My journey that it took for me to get here. Everything after my first year here is just a bonus.”
He was a tryout in the Cardinals’ 2016 rookie minicamp who flashed enough to earn a free agent contract and then a spot on the practice squad. He made the active roster there in 2017.
Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher was in Arizona at the same time Penny arrived, and he recalled the fullback who packed a punch and lit up the room. So when Penny landed back on the Cardinals' practice squad for the start of 2018, the Giants scooped him up and signed him on Sept. 19. He joined the team in Week 3 and was active in every game after that.
“It doesn’t get any better than that to me,” Penny said.
His unique job description is to block storm clouds as much as linebackers.
“Everybody who knows me, if you ask them what is one of the attributes or characteristics that I have, everybody will probably say that he’s always smiling, he’s always got a smile on his face,” Penny said. “I can be that guy like some days when the day isn’t going well or not too good for everybody, you can always count on me and I’ll be good, I’ll be smiling. Everybody will be sweating and worried about something and I’ll be ready to go, like ‘come on, let’s go.’ My spirit is always high. I’m always in good spirits.”
He's hardly a cheerleader. He’s a football player. He’s always itching for the ball, whether it’s by handoff or pass. He said he dislikes being called a fullback because it is too limiting by definition. He’s trying to get people to call him a V-back.
What’s the V stand for? “Versatile.”
All that stuff is fun and it carries some importance, but it is ancillary to the main reason he is on the Giants this season: To make the best running back in the NFL even better.
The key to their relationship, Penny and Barkley agree, is Penny’s background as a traditional tailback. He played that position in college (he ran for 1,159 yards and was a kickoff returner, too, his senior year at Idaho) before coming to the NFL. Then his 6-1, 250-pound frame became more useful as a battering ram than as a ballcarrier.
“He sees things like a running back,” Barkley said. “Especially when I have him lead blocking for me, it’s a trust that you have there.”
“You definitely have to have great chemistry with your runner,” Penny said. “Being an ex-running back, me and Saquon, we see the same things when we’re back there in the backfield. I read my holes and my position like a runner, so I get the same feelings as Saquon. You definitely have to be on the same page as your running back.”
Seeing things like Barkley is one thing; reacting to them like Barkley is quite another. Not that there is much shame in coming up short of that standard. There are about nine billion other people on the planet besides Penny who can’t do what Barkley does with a football in his hands.
“He’s a special runner,” Penny said. “I remind him that a couple times a week. That’s a rare talent there. He’s got moves and cuts and changes direction so nasty, it’s just different. I haven’t been around too many guys like that. It makes it way easier. I tell him that every day, ‘Bro, you make my job way easier just because of how good you are.’ ”
It’s not just the holes and gaps that Penny glimpses when he’s lined up just in front of Barkley, either.
“Some defenders are scared, I can see it in their eyes,” he said. “They don’t even look at me and I’m about to block them. They’re looking at Saquon, waiting to see what his move is going to be. So when they react off him, it just makes my job easier to blow somebody out of the hole.”
And then, with his violent task completed and with Barkley having blown past him to the roar of the crowd, Penny trots back to the huddle or off the field.
“With a smile on my face,” he said. “Just like that.”