After all the talk about Saquon Barkley having to take hits, all the conjecture over who would deliver those deliberate but certainly delicate blows that would show everyone he is ready to play, all the build-up to how his knee would handle the rigors of contact, the running back emerged from Thursday’s practice with something unexpected.
A completely clean uniform.
Barkley never hit the ground, or so his laundry would have the world believe. There were no grass stains on his white long sleeve shirt, no muddy marks on his gray pants. That’s because no one brought him to the ground. The idea that he would be wrapped up and driven into the turf by a teammate?
"Remember," running backs coach Burton Burns said, "the objective is to not get tackled!"
His advice to Barkley before the workout: "Just go play and not make a big deal out of it."
That’s what Barkley did. He ran routes. He blocked in pass protection. He even took some handoffs and ran between blockers and would-be tacklers.
"They gave me some good shots," Barkley said following practice. "Today felt good."
More importantly, it felt … normal. As Burns said, it wasn’t a big deal. And that’s something to celebrate.
"That’s the positive thing, I was not really focusing on [the knee] too much," Barkley said.
The goal of Thursday was to see how he moved in a confined area. Over the past week or so he had mastered the open space of the football field, mostly by running passing routes. He took a handoff and carried a football "for the first time since I got hurt" in Wednesday’s practice when the players were in shells, then did it again on Thursday in full pads along with the rest of his rigors.
"There have been a lot of checkpoints along the way," he said of Thursday’s accomplishment. "I was going out there, trying to get back to full speed, trying to get back to football condition … I feel good. I’m taking it one day at a time."
The opener is just a little over a week away, and while Barkley appears ready to participate in that Sept. 12 game against the Broncos, no one has yet declared his status. Joe Judge said a decision on his availability would not be made until the middle of next week.
"He's done a hell of a job working hard to get back," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said, stopping short of saying back for that first game.
So there remains a chance that after all of this rehab and recovery and running through garbage cans and even taking hits from teammates, the medical staff puts the kibosh on Barkley for the opener. The running back said he would accept that.
"I’ve been a team player this whole process," he said. "I’ve listened to the doctors, I’ve listened to the coaches, I’ve listened to the trainers. They have my best interest at heart. Whatever they feel is best for me and best for the team I’ll do."
Clearly, though, that is not the preferred outcome. Barkley, teammates and coaches always say, is pushing to do more than he is told. At some point, that game action will come.
"Maybe it might be one quarter, maybe it might be one play," Barkley said of what he’ll be allowed to do. "Whatever the opportunity is, when I’m back out there I know I’m going to be able to go and be who I am, the player I am."
Then he can finally get that uniform dirty.
Or maybe, if he’s that good, not.