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With game against Jets looming, Giants' Saquon Barkley hasn't been himself after ankle injury

Saquon Barkley has been averaging about two yards

Saquon Barkley has been averaging about two yards a rush less since his ankle injury. Credit: Getty Images/Gregory Shamus

Just a few hours before the draft in Nashville this past spring, the Jets posted a video on social media that showed some of their fans decked out in Sam Darnold jerseys. The caption?

“Thank you, Giants!”

The implication was that the Giants, who had the second pick in the previous draft but did not select Darnold in 2018, had made a mistake that the Jets capitalized on when they grabbed the quarterback with the third selection.

The Giants were very high on Darnold at the time. They thought he would be a very good NFL quarterback. They just felt that they had a better option.

There hasn’t been a moment of regret from inside 1925 Giants Drive about that decision in the 19 months since, and the Giants hoped to finally get a chance to have their Gold Jacket pick on the field against the Jets to show them, in person, just how correct they were.

But he won’t be there.

Oh, Saquon Barkley will play in this game. He’ll start at running back, take the majority of the handoffs and have a bunch of passes thrown in his direction. He might even break a few tackles and score a touchdown or two.

But he won’t be the player the Giants took with the second overall pick in 2018. He hasn’t been ever since he sprained his ankle in Week 3 and missed three games.

This battered Barkley is very good, there’s no doubt about that. He’s shown a few flashes since he returned to the field, including an exciting 65-yard catch-and-run a week ago against the Cowboys. But he hasn’t been special. He hasn’t been supernatural.

He hasn’t been Saquon.

“Obviously, yes, am I upset that we’re 2-7? I don’t think anyone’s happy that we’re 2-7,” Barkley said this past week. “Am I happy that I hurt my ankle and I missed 3 1/2 games this year? No, I’m not happy about that.”

But Barkley refused to call this season a disappointment, even if the expectations for him from both inside and outside the team in 2019 were well beyond what he is producing now.

Pat Shurmur also objected to that word.

“I’m not disappointed in Saquon,” he said. “I think there’s areas where we all can play better. … He had some really good runs the other night, and then if you asked him, there’s probably some runs out there where he left a little meat on the bone.”

Last week against the Cowboys was a perfect example of this new four-cylinder Barkley. He had only 28 rushing yards on 14 carries. The Giants leaned on him in the red zone, and he was unable to work his magic.

Then there was the 65-yard pass play.

“I had a screen that was called perfectly, blocked up perfectly,” he said. “I have to find a way to get into the end zone. But I didn’t.”

It’s hard to imagine last year’s Barkley, who won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, being chased down the way this year’s Barkley was on Monday night. Take away that 65-yard play and Barkley gained 30 total yards on his 19 other touches.

“I don’t think he’s hit his stride yet,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He’s done a lot of good things, and we know he’s a really good back … He’s had some really good runs where there hasn’t been a lot there, and there’s been some other times where I think he would probably say ‘I could do a better job, because the line did a good job, I have to do a better job here, there.’ I think he’s getting there.”

In the three games since he came back from the high ankle sprain, Barkley has had only one run of more than 13 yards. He has averaged 3.2 yards per carry in those games. In the 19 he played in before the ankle injury, he averaged 5.2. Some of that has to do with the blocking, to be sure. But Barkley is supposed to be able to transcend that.

In three games this year, the Giants’ leading rusher has been a wide receiver. Barkley played in two of those games.

“I don’t think it’s holding me back,” Barkley said of the injury, perhaps trying to convince himself more than anyone else. “It’s obvious I had an ankle injury. It would be easy for me to sit here and make an excuse of why this and why that, but that’s not what I’m going to do. I’m just going to find a way to get better, find a way to help the team get better, find a way to be more efficient in the run game and help our team win games.”

Maybe that will happen this week. Maybe Barkley will be recovered enough to make the Jets eat their tweet. It’s been seven weeks since the injury, which is a lot closer to the expected recovery timeframe than the three weeks Barkley actually missed. And the Giants do have a bye next week, which will give him more of a chance to recover.

“I feel like how I’m supposed to feel right now,” he said. “It’s Week [10] in the NFL, everyone’s a little banged up, everyone’s a little sore. You’ve just got to suck it up and fight through it. I’m just going to continue to fight through what I’ve been going through, I guess you could say, and just try to get better and try to help my team win.”

Last year, Barkley had the bulk of his production in the last two months of the season. Perhaps he can salvage some of his statistical goals before the regular-season schedule expires.

A voracious film-watcher who pores over clips of the all-time greats to pull moves and ideas, whether it be Barry Sanders or Curtis Martin or contemporaries such as Ezekiel Elliott and even the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell, Barkley said he has started to study a new running back of late.

Himself. Circa 2018.

Now all he has to do is get back to that form.

“When the running game’s not going well, the way I look at it is, don’t panic,” he said. “Whether you’re going through a slump, whether it’s a game you’re going through a slump, whether it’s multiple games, the way I believe in myself and believe in the offensive line, we’re going to get it going. We’re going to figure it out.”

The Giants believe that as well. That’s why they drafted him where they did.

It would just be nice if they could make the Jets believers on Sunday, too.

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