The one shining positive to come out of this disappointing season has been the development of Saquon Barkley. The rookie running back has given the Giants everything they dreamed he could provide when they selected him with the second overall pick in the spring, from on-field production to locker room and sideline leadership to off-the-field conduct.
His season was further honored on Tuesday evening when he was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team. He was the third-highest vote-getter in fan voting, which ended last week, and received the most votes of any non-quarterback in the NFL. Come February, he’s a favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
So maybe it’s time to make sure the one element they clearly have in place for any success they find in their immediate future doesn’t suffer a setback. Maybe it’s time to give the kid a break, ease up on his snap-count burden and let him finish the season in a way that really is the most important: Healthy.
That doesn’t mean Barkley should be swaddled in bubble wrap on the sideline, benched from playing in these last two games of the season. He’s still a rookie and he has some growth to achieve, and the only way that happens is on the field. He still has to experience playing a 16-game schedule, in the hopes that the coming schedules will provide even more games to play.
Don’t pull the plug on him. But definitely use the dimmer switch.
His days of handling the kind of workload that he did on Sunday against the Titans, when he played every single offensive snap, should be over. He’s averaged 18.6 carries in the past six games since the bye week. When the Giants were still alive for a playoff berth, that was 18.6 opportunities for him to make something magical happen per game. Now, it’d just be 18.6 invitations for disaster.
The Giants have seen all they need to see from him. They know what they have. No more evaluation needs to take place.
There is nothing really left for him to accomplish. The rookie rushing record is out of reach, as is this season’s rushing title, which a week ago seemed like a possibility. He already holds the team rookie rushing record.
The Giants should get a good look at other options while they can. Wayne Gallman almost certainly will be part of the running backs room next season. The Giants should make sure they like what they have in him. They even could promote rookie Robert Martin from the practice squad. Just like how the Giants wanted to see what Kyle Lauletta could show them in game action last week — whether or not they were impressed by it — they should be taking advantage of these games to do the same at other key positions.
It’s unlikely the Giants will do this.
"The big picture is to win this game,” coach Pat Shurmur said on Monday. “Listen, this is a dangerous game at times, but guys are very competitive and they want to go out and play, and I think it’s important that guys that are healthy enough to play, play.”
Barkley undoubtedly would not want to be limited.
Sometimes, though, the smart play with guys who are healthy enough to play every snap should be to try to keep them that way. Especially when you are trying to rebuild a franchise around that one person.
Barkley has shown no signs of wear and tear through 14 games. If anything, he’s delivered more punishment than he’s absorbed. But it’s a freaky sport in which strange things happen from snap to snap.
The Giants caught flak for selecting a running back with the second overall pick in the draft, in part because of the lack of longevity that position typically has. While there are plenty of examples of long careers such as Adrian Peterson’s, even he missed almost the entire 2016 season because of a knee injury.
Subscribing to the theory that a running back has a finite number of hits in him, why waste any significant number of those in these final two games? It’d be like leasing a car and chewing through all the mileage in the first year. At the end, it costs you. If the Giants really feel like they are building toward next season and beyond, there’s no reason to have Barkley on the field in anything more than an early cameo role for the rest of this one.
Fortify the offensive line in the offseason through the draft and free agency and let Barkley’s next meaningful carries and heavy load come behind that improved unit in 2019. Because if he gets injured in the final two weeks of this season behind this offensive line, next year will be off to a terrible start before it even begins.