Saquon Barkley cheats.
That was one of the things Sterling Shepard learned about his teammate when the two of them spent a few weeks this past offseason training together in Los Angeles. They lived in the same house, grinded through the same drills, dreamed the same optimism about the upcoming season.
But when it came to some of the sprints, when they were going head-to-head to chug up Pacific sand dunes, and they came close to the finish line, well…
“He’ll try to stick his hand out or something and try to cheat a little bit,” Shepard said.
Barkley’s response to such an aspersion?
“Come on man!” the second-year running back blurted. “That’s Sterling Shepard for you.”
Whether or not Barkley actually broke any unwritten rules in the workouts may never be settled.
“Number one, if you’re not cheating you’re not trying,” Barkley said. “He says if you are running a race, what are they going to count, your chest or [sticking out your arm], and I don’t do that. Why would I do that during a race? If anything, I was the one who was running through because I know…”
Barkley stopped for a moment. He was getting too excited. He gathered himself.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You can see how passionate I’m getting about that.”
And you can imagine that if he gets so revved up about footraces on the beach, so intense about edging out a teammate by the length of an extended body part, so invested in coming in first when no one is watching, that proving himself as the top running back in the NFL this upcoming season is probably something that matters to him.
He’ll say that he just wants wins, that he’ll trade rushing titles and MVP talk and all the other accolades that lay in front of him as his career is beginning to take off for a Super Bowl win. And that’s probably true. But the reality is that for the Giants to achieve that ultimate team goal, they need their best individual player to thrive. And that’s Barkley.
He already showed what he’s capable of in his first season with the Giants when he ran for 1,307 yards, caught 91 passes for another 721 yards, scored 15 touchdowns, and was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Now, his job is to top it.
Even if it means figuratively sticking his arm out at the finish line.
“He’s a year two guy, and usually, for talented people that work hard at what they do, you can see an improvement between year one and year two,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “Sometimes it’s their biggest improvement.”
In other words, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
But can Barkley really get better? Isn’t it asking way too much of someone to splash into the NFL with a record-setting performance and then top it?
“Maybe for some guys that will rest on their laurels,” Shurmur said. “But I don’t see that in Saquon. He’s a guy that’s just trying to get better every day.”
And every night.
Even when he is not training, not preparing for the upcoming season, not focusing on carrying the Giants back to a level of glory that was last witnessed nearly a decade ago and is quickly fading toward ancient history (there are only two players left on the team who were part of a Super Bowl champion here), he is brainstorming ways to improve.
“You have so much time, especially when you’re laying in bed at night in the hotel and you’re just looking up at the ceiling, to just think,” Barkley said. “So, in those moments, I’m just trying to find ways that I can improve.”
If he starts to think about running inside zone plays, he may hop out of bed and pull up some tape of Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley demonstrating how they handle such schemes. If he dropped a pass that day — or earlier that week, or earlier in his life, really — he’ll start flogging himself over the mistake and then cue up some clips of great receivers past and present to watch their route-running and handwork on the football.
“I don’t think I was really awful in anything, but there’s a lot of things that I can work on in my game,” he said. “All those little things are where I try to get better. I don’t really try to just have one focal point because I think when you do that, you kind of just put yourself in a box. I try to make sure I maintain the same mindset to continue to get better at everything.”
Which brings us back to Los Angeles.
Barkley spent his first offseason as a professional football player this summer far away from the buzz and expectation in New York. He and Shepard were both planning to train separately in Southern California and they were looking for places to live when Barkley found one first. It had enough room for Shepard and his family to move in, too.
“It’s good to train with your teammates,” Barkley said. “Obviously, you have respect for each other, but it’s a different respect when you’re actually living with each other, playing video games, and going from fighting each other to chilling to competing at this and that. It makes you grow and respect each other and the game so much more. Not only as a player but as a person, to respect each other.”
Both had been like little brothers to Odell Beckham Jr. when he was with the Giants. Now, they are the men of the house in the Giants locker room.
The two had always been close, but the experience of sharing a house and a training regimen forged something more than a friendship.
“I love that dude,” Shepard said. “We push each other every day. We compete with everything, who can swim the fastest or whatever, and I think it’s all in good nature, and it’s ultimately going to make us better.”
Barkley admits that he isn’t as talented at what he calls “tier-two sports” like pingpong or handball, and concedes defeat to Shepard and other teammates in those contests. But to him, that’s not the point of such events.
“It brings out [the competitiveness] in everybody when everyone is playing ping-pong or we are playing card games or when we come out here on the field,” Barkley said. “We didn’t have that last year, we didn’t have that competitive nature that we have. That’s why I think we can have a really special year. If we continue to build, continue to build on that with the long hard days, and put in the work and focus on details, I believe we can have a great season.”
That’s what Barkley wants, for himself and the Giants.
“For me, I consider a proper encore would be just doing whatever I can to help my team to get in position to compete in the playoffs, and compete for a championship,” Barkley said.
He’s shown he’ll do everything he can to achieve that.
Even if he has to stick out his arm at the finish line.
Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,307 yards as a rookie last season. He had seven games of 100 or more yards rushing:
Yards Opponent Date Longest TD
106 Jacksonville Sept. 9 68-td 1
130 Philadelphia Oct. 11 50-td 1
142 Tampa Bay Nov. 18 23 2
101 at Philadelphia Nov. 25 51-td 1
125 Chicago Dec. 2 29 0
170 at Washington Dec. 9 78-td 1
106 Dallas Dec. 30 68 1