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Next challenge for Saquon Barkley? Keeping focus during offseason

Saquon Barkley taking time out to speak to

Saquon Barkley taking time out to speak to the meadia during locker clean out day at the Giants practice facility, MetLife Sports Complex on Mon. Dec. 31, 2018. Credit: Errol Anderson

Throughout the entirety of his brief NFL career, Saquon Barkley has been a Giant. Not just in terms of playing for the team, but being with the team. They drafted him in April and have had him within the parameters of their organization pretty much ever since, with the exception of a few weekends away and a month of summer vacation before training camp. Even then, there was a structure to the relationship between player and team.

Now the Giants will send their star out into the big bad world. He won’t be reporting to work at the team facility each day. He won’t be checking in with his position coach and head coach regularly. He won’t be having lunch in the cafeteria where the general manager, co-owner, or anyone else in the organization who wants to keep tabs on him can just sidle up and chit-chat.

That’s a scary prospect.

Not that Barkley has given any indication that he’ll be affected by such freedoms. His maturity in handling just about every situation presented to him has been remarkable, and his dedication to football in a life that offers many diversions from it has been impressive. But for the next 15 weeks, until the team begins its offseason training program in April, Barkley will have his first opportunity to enjoy the spoils of being Saquon. And it wouldn’t be crazy to think that it will change him, at least subtly.

At least Barkley is aware of this. Asked on Sunday about the biggest adjustment he had to make during his rookie season, he spoke about the difficulty of keeping the off-the-field things off his plate.

“I think the biggest challenge that I think I did a good job of is blocking that noise out and just staying true to who I am,” he said. “Not letting the media and all of the national attention that comes with it change you, and that’s a hard thing. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you, especially in nowadays’ age and you go through your phone and you see that this person said this and this person said that, but I think that was the biggest challenge.”

He pointed to Pat Shurmur suggesting — both privately and publicly — that he start focusing on gaining short yards instead of trying to hit a home run on each carry. The “dirty” 4 and 5-yard gains, as Shurmur called them. That was something many analysts and observers had been wanting to see from Barkley. He’d heard those voices, but Shurmur’s was the only one that he listened to.

“Obviously, for your coach to come out and say something like that, listen to him and see how to get better,” he said.

But Barkley won’t have that voice in his ear now. At least not as regularly as it has been. For the past eight months Barkley has been the Giants’ rookie running back. The team set that tone early on when Shurmur welcomed him after the draft, gave him his helmet, showed him his locker, and told him to get to work. For the next four months, he’ll be a 22-year-old multi-millionaire with a megawatt smile, a burgeoning brand, and a lot of folks pulling him in a lot of directions. Not all of those directions will be beneficial to the Giants.

Barkley does take with him the echoes of his coach and teammates. He spoke about what he’s picked up from Eli Manning, the quarterback who has managed to navigate a similar landscape without much turbulence for the past decade and a half.

“He taught me so much,” Barkley said. “One, he taught me how to handle you guys [in the media] first and foremost. But just the way it doesn’t matter, up, down, win, loss, great game, bad game, he’s not going to change. He comes in with the same mentality, with the same mindset. He’s going to continue to believe in it, continue to work it. I think that’s the right recipe and the way that you should do it.”

So far, Barkley hasn’t changed. He hasn’t really had a chance to, he’s been too busy playing football.

“With the help of my family and the people that I surround myself with, my teammates and the people in the building, I think that they did a good job of helping me stay grounded and helping me understand what really matters,” he said.

Now, however, football season is over. It will be up to Barkley and Barkley alone to keep that understanding in the forefront. Idle hands and all that. He joked that this will be his first time off since his senior year of high school, and even then football season spilled into basketball and track seasons. There was always something to do.

Shurmur said he wants Barkley to return in the spring “as a better version of his former self.”

Until he knows he will for sure, he and the Giants will just have to keep their fingers crossed.

New York Sports