Near the end of a season in which his running lanes have been closed, Saquon Barkley was in no mood Wednesday to stroll down Painful Memory Lane.
Barkley is returning Sunday for the first time to the site (Soldier Field) where his career took a sharp turn on Sept. 20, 2020 — when a clean tackle from safety Eddie Jackson left the running back with a torn ACL, partially torn meniscus and strained MCL in his right knee.
“I’m not thinking like, ‘I hate the field,’ ” an uncharacteristically sullen Barkley said. “I’m excited that I’m healthy enough to be able to play another game. You never know when these opportunities are going to be taken away from you. My whole mindset is to cherish these last two games that we have and try to finish on a high note.”
Barkley did not practice Wednesday, as is his normal weekly maintenance plan. But he strongly rejected the idea of sitting out the last two games — “No,” he said to the suggestion — to avoid further injury and turn to rehabbing because the Giants already are eliminated from playoff contention.
After a great two-year start to his career, Barkley’s last two seasons have been lost. He missed 14 games last season and hasn’t rushed for more than 64 yards in any of 11 games this season. His season-best performance — 126 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against the Saints — preceded a fluky sprained ankle the next week that caused him to miss the next four games.
It creates a big what-if. What if Barkley didn’t get injured? Would the Giants have made the playoffs last season instead of falling one win short? Would this frustrating season look differently? Would he have signed a big-money extension instead of possibly playing on a contract-year in 2022?
“I try not to think about it, but it happened,” Barkley said. “I really don’t think about it. I guess probably more so last year, but this is a whole different season.”
The Giants’ woeful run- and pass-blocking complicated key personnel evaluations of Barkley and quarterback Daniel Jones. But where Jones’ backups have flopped, Devontae Booker is averaging 4.5 yards per carry to Barkley’s 3.5.
Barkley has made it clear many times, including earlier this month, that he wants to be part of the Giants’ future and any turnaround from five consecutive losing seasons. Asked again Wednesday, he said only, “Yeah, I’ve answered that before.”
But, with the general manager who drafted him likely on his way out and the possibility that Dave Gettleman’s successor won’t hold running backs in the same high regard, Barkley’s future is less certain than it seemed at the start of the season. Definitely less than before Sept. 20, 2020. Not that he ever thinks this could be the end of his Giants career.
“I can’t control those things,” Barkley said. “I can’t have that thought process.”
The only thought is to finish strong. For what reason?
“Heart, pride, your last name, those little kids that are still watching,” Barkley said, “and for each other.”