Saquon Barkley has been called a lot of things in the 10 months since the Giants selected him with the second overall pick in the draft. Savior. Leader. Role model. Generational spirit. And a mighty talented running back.
But there is one thing he’ll no longer be called after Sunday: a rookie.
The new face of the franchise will complete his first lap through the NFL when the Giants finish their regular season against the Cowboys at MetLife Stadium. There still will be some 2018 housekeeping to take care of in 2019, such as the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, for which he and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield — the top two picks in the draft in April — seem to be the only serious contenders. And there is the Pro Bowl in late January, for which Barkley was named a starter.
The next time Barkley suits up for the Giants in a game that matters, though, he’ll be a second-year player. There will be a new crop of rookie draft picks around him. There will be new veterans added to the roster. And, of course, there will be new expectations.
Higher, probably, than the huge ones he arrived with.
Barkley will take that challenge the same way he does all of them on the football field: Head on, ready to leap over, juke around or plow through them. But he’ll be carrying with him the numerous lessons from his first NFL season.
• “I learned that you’re going to be tested in the NFL,” Barkley said this past week. “There’s going to be highs, there’s going to be lows. You’ve got to stay poised through it all. No matter what, you got to come in and you got to continue to work, continue to have that mindset to get better every single day.”
• He learned how to be a leader, even as the youngest player on the roster and the youngest employee in the organization. “Try to make the people around you better, whether that’s speaking vocally or showing your work ethic,” he said.
• “I learned that the season is never over until you officially can’t make the playoffs, to be completely honest, because at one point we were 1-7, and then four or five weeks later, we’re right in the hunt,” he said. “If this happens or that happens, we can be in a different situation coming into this week. You’ve got to stay with it.”
In almost all of those cases, Barkley learned while doing. There were no harsh lessons, no missed opportunities in which he should have done more and vowed to do so in the future.
Even as he has struggled to carry the offense in the past two games, averaging 2.1 yards per carry with only one run of more than 10 yards, he’s maintained the other pieces and skills that have allowed him to become someone the entire organization leans on.
“He’s really good about being the same guy,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He’s a very mature football player for a rookie. He’s very passionate about the game and that comes across . . . We see him in the building every day and before the game, at halftime, on the sidelines, at the end of the game. You guys talk about his leadership, but it’s real and it’s very unselfish and it’s all about the team winning and whatever he can do.”
Barkley isn’t used to this kind of frustration. There hadn’t been a 2 1/2-game span like this in his life in which he failed to make some kind of a dazzling play, some kind of an eye-popping move on the field. Add that to the pile of lessons.
“I don’t think you ever accept it,” Barkley said of handling what, for him, has been adversity. “The struggles aren’t hard to accept, because I don’t accept them. I just learn from it and get better.’’
Some of the diminished production has to do with the absence of Odell Beckham Jr. in the offense, but a lot of it has to do with Barkley himself. Offensive line coach Hal Hunter said he experienced similar defensive attention to the run game when he was with the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson was in the backfield.
“People are going to try to load up and stop the running game and turn your game into one dimension,” Hunter said. “Our job is to not let them do that . . . You just can’t throw your hands up and say, ‘Oh, they’re going to overload the box, we’re not going to be able to run the ball.’ You’ve got to be able to run the ball with this guy, and if they continue to try to overload the box, you’ve just got to continue to find new ways and do things that you do better and find creative ways to continue to make them have to strain to stop that running back.
“You’ve got to run the ball with this guy, and that’s what we’re committed to do.”
In other words, the Giants have to learn how to best use Barkley just as Barkley has to learn about playing in the NFL.
With one game left in Barkley’s rookie season, coach Pat Shurmur said he wants his running back to focus on the Cowboys and not anything beyond it. Yet. Eventually Shurmur will talk to him — and all rookies — about the challenges of their first offseason with 15 weeks away from the team. For now, though, it’s a myopic stare.
“He needs to go out and put a winning performance on the field,” Shurmur said. “That’s how you cap off your year.”
That may be the last lesson Barkley learns this season.
“You’ve got to stay poised through the year and continue to get better,” he said. “What I’m pressing to do is come out Sunday and play my heart out, compete for my teammates and hopefully come out with a win. When the season ends, get in the offseason and get to work. Figure out how I can go from doing what I did in my rookie year and even elevate it to another level.”
GP ATT YDS AVG LNG BIG TD YDS/G FUM LST FD
15 244 1,198 4.9 78 14 10 79.9 0 0 45