Saquon Barkley returns to the Tampa field where his career changed
TAMPA — The arc of Saquon Barkley’s career took a dramatic turn the last time he played at Raymond James Stadium.
That was a little over two years ago in a game mostly remembered for the exciting comeback Daniel Jones engineered in his first NFL start. The entire franchise celebrated that moment, including Barkley, who hopped around the field in a boot, joyfully waving his crutches.
Earlier that day, he suffered a high ankle sprain while being tackled along the sideline. There was concern that the reigning offensive rookie of the year might miss some time, but hardly any doubt that he soon would regain his award-winning form and return to his role as the centerpiece of an offense that had just found its new quarterback.
Between his athleticism and strength, his youth and his reputation for being a fast healer, it seemed as if Barkley would be back leaping over defenders and scooting into the end zone in no time.
Instead, in the past 26 months, Barkley has been in a near-constant state of rehab and recovery from a number of ailments and injuries that have prevented him from playing at the top of his game.
Last year he tore his ACL. This year it was another ankle sprain. He was even touched by COVID-19 two weeks ago when what turned out to be a false positive test sent him into isolation and played a part in delaying his potential return for the Week 9 game against the Raiders.
Because of those injuries, Barkley missed or failed to complete 24 of a possible 39 games with the Giants since the last time they played in Tampa. Many of the times he did finish the game, he was constrained by the nagging effects of those injuries. You can count on one hand the number of times in the past two years that he has looked and produced the way he did as a rookie.
On Monday night, Barkley was back on the field where his career went awry. He rushed for 25 yards on six carries and caught six passes for 31 yards in the Giants’ 30-10 loss.
He had missed four games because of what originally was reported to be a low ankle sprain suffered on Oct. 10.
Barkley’s opportunities to touch the ball against the Buccaneers, though, took a secondary place behind the chance that he has to do something more significant for his career . . . and, with his next contract looming ever closer, perhaps his life.
Barkley’s two-plus years of injuries began in Tampa. After Monday night’s game in Tampa, if he can continue to close that chapter and start a new one, he might be able to get back on the path he once ran with ease.
It’s the one in which he was worth the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, the one in which he was the most dynamic running back in the NFL, the one that was heading toward MVPs and gold jackets and all the other accolades that seemed to be right there in front of him the last time he pulled up to this building in a bus to face the Bucs.
"You live life, you know what I mean?" Barkley said. "There are going to be setbacks. There’s going to be adversity. Not just as a football player but in anything you do in life.
"Just because you have a little adversity, little setbacks, doesn’t mean you’ve got to start listening to all the noise. You’ve got to ignore the noise, put your head down and keep working and have faith and have belief that all the hard work that you put in is going to come to light."
Think of the phases in Barkley’s career as a football possession.
The first down was special and successful but ended in Tampa in 2019 short of its goal. He’s spent just about every day since dealing with a second more disappointing and debilitating down.
When he stepped back on the field where he was first injured Monday night, it was a crucial third down for him.
It might even determine whether the Giants punt when it comes time to consider his next contract.
Barkley insists he is not looking that far ahead.
"The only thought process is getting back, getting back with my team, getting back playing the sport that I love," he said. "Right when I felt like I started getting back [to form from the ACL injury earlier this season], I got injured. But we’ve got, what, eight games left in the regular season? Everything we want to accomplish is still out there and I’ll just try to get back as healthy as I can to go out there and try to make a run at this thing in the second half of the season."
And, perhaps, the third act of his career.