The Giants have gotten just about everything they wanted from Saquon Barkley on the field. The rookie had an impressive first five games, gaining at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each one heading into Thursday night’s game against the Eagles and scoring a team-high five touchdowns. He’s one of only three players in the league to have scored multiple touchdowns rushing and receiving.
But it wasn’t just his production that the Giants drafted with the second overall pick. They also wanted something else from him. So on the flight home from Carolina this past weekend, after a heartbreaking loss and tumultuous weekend, Pat Shurmur spent some time talking to Barkley about the next phase of his development.
About becoming a Giants leader.
“Coach Shurmur sat down on the plane with me and said some great things that I needed to hear,” Barkley said, “but obviously, that’s a conversation between me and Coach Shurmur.”
Yes, the Giants want their 21-year-old running back, not only the youngest player on the roster but also the youngest full-time employee in the entire organization — there isn’t a ticket agent or equipment assistant or busboy in the cafeteria who’s younger than Barkley — to be at the forefront of the franchise.
It almost doesn’t seem fair to thrust that kind of responsibility on a rookie. And yet, as the Giants teetered on chaos heading into Thursday’s game, that might be their best chance at stability.
“I really think some of your younger players can be your best leaders,” Shurmur said. “He displays humility, he says the right thing . . . You’ve got a genuine, competitive guy that can do really great things on the football field. Those guys can lead naturally by just being themselves.”
One reason Shurmur chose that flight to speak with Barkley probably was because of the various styles and attempts at leadership from other Giants in the past week. Odell Beckham Jr. has tried to rally them in his raucous and risky way, which may or may not work. Eli Manning has been their face of calm for more than a decade, and whether that resonates with this roster remains to be seen. There are a lot of voices, and a lot of approaches, all attempting to seize on the right vibe that would lead the Giants out of their 1-4 malaise. Now they want Barkley to add his to the mix and perhaps even rise above the cacophony.
It’s something Barkley said was a goal of his when he was drafted.
“But I know you can’t just take on that role from day one,” he said. “You’ve got to grow into that role and earn the respect of your teammates, and that’s something I’m going to continue to try to do every single day.”
Barkley spent time with Beckham before the draft in the offseason. He said then that he learned a lot from their talks, not only about the decisions he should be making but about the pitfalls to avoid when it comes to fame and celebrity. Barkley undoubtedly has been watching closely this past week as the voices from his locker room have been echoing. He’s been scrutinizing their effects — positive and negative — and processing it all in a way that will shape his own decisions not just for the rest of this season but perhaps for years to come.
Barkley may take elements from Beckham and Manning and Shurmur and others, but if Barkley is to become a leader, he’ll have to do it his way.
Giants Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, a host for “Fox NFL Thursday” and an analyst, was the onetime undisputed voice of a championship locker room. He said he thinks the Giants are “still searching” for leadership.
“It’s the example you set every day in practice, it’s the excellence in the way you go about your business, that people follow,” Strahan said. “It’s not necessarily your words. It’s you as a person, as a whole.”
Could it be Barkley?
“If Saquon comes in every day and becomes the best version of Saquon he can become, and he sticks to those principles and that integrity, then of course he’ll be a terrific leader,” Shurmur said. “And he already has established himself that way.”
Barkley said he’s trying to improve in that area. He said he wants to be one of the first players in the building each morning, working hard in the weight room, asking good questions in meetings and acting like a veteran instead of a rookie.
“Stuff like that is what sits well with your team,” Barkley said. “And that’s how I try to continue to grow into that role.”