This figures to be an emotional weekend for Saquon Barkley. The Giants on Sunday play at Soldier Field in Chicago, and it was on that famous site that his career trajectory took a nosedive that he has been unable to pull up out of and rise again.
It was Sept. 20, Week 2 of the 2020 season, when Barkley on the first play of the second quarter ran for 6 yards and was taken down by Bears safety Eddie Jackson. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and also suffered a partially torn meniscus.
Barkley recuperated and returned and is the Giants’ starting running back, but he has been a shell of the dynamic runner who captivated not only the Giants but the entire NFL in 2018, when he was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. Since returning this season from an ankle injury that cost him four games, Barkley has struggled in every facet of his job description. In the past six games, he has 76 rushing attempts and 266 yards, an average of 3.5 yards per carry. He has 24 receptions for just 114 yards (an average of 4.9 yards per catch). He has one touchdown.
There is something not right with Barkley. Does he need to be back out there this weekend, to take his struggles back to the scene of the lowest moment of his football life? Perhaps shutting Barkley down now is prudent, to allow whatever physical, mental and emotional baggage he is carrying around to heal up for a better and brighter 2022.
“I don’t think it’s a crazy idea, especially if the plan is to hold onto him for as long as you can,” Tiki Barber, the Giants’ franchise rushing leader, told The Post on Monday. “He’s not running confidently. He’s in an odd space, because he’s trying to prove things to some of his critics out there but he’s not at 100 percent and you can see it. If they were close to competing for something, maybe it would be worth it. But, in a season that is clearly lost, I don’t know if it is.”
The Giants picked up the fifth-year option that will pay Barkley $7.2 million in 2022. There are no indications the team is ready to move on from him.
From a pure competitive standpoint, there can be no argument that backup Devontae Booker has been the more productive running back. He has 119 rushing attempts this season for 533 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. He’s averaged 7.1 yards on his 36 receptions.
If coach Joe Judge is adamant about putting the players on the field that give the Giants the best chance to win, Booker ahead of Barkley, for now, seems logical.
“In terms of the shutting him down for the year deal, that’s more something that our medical team has not approached me about,” Judge said. “At this moment there wouldn’t be any medical reason, at least not that they have brought to me, about shutting him down.
“I know Saquon has been battling through a number of things this year. He came off a traumatic injury last year, it’s a tough recovery. He’s dealt with a number of other things as well.”
The eventual 34-10 loss to the Eagles on Sunday was not yet a rout early in the third quarter — the Giants trailed 10-3 — when Barkley on second-and-20 seemed to pick up some traction as he cut to the left and took off. He had room to run, but after 5 yards he was hauled down from behind by linebacker Genard Avery. There was no place in the universe Barkley used to inhabit where this would have happened.
“It’s not the explosion, I think that’s still there in spurts, it’s the acceleration you don’t see,” Barber said. “And also, and I think it’s subconscious … when he’s about to go into contact, you see him bracing for the hit as opposed to running through the contact.
“It’s almost like he’s trying to protect himself and I get it, because he really hasn’t had a chance to heal from the ankle.”
The unstable nature of the Giants’ offensive line — it probably needs four new starters next season — has certainly played a big part in Barkley’s demise. Booker, though, is able to make more out of nothing than Barkley, and that is telling.
This has all unraveled so quickly for Barkley and ending his season now makes plenty of sense.
“The benefit is his body heals and he gets closer to the Saquon that won Rookie of the Year as opposed to this player who feels like he’s maybe 50 percent of that,” Barber said. “It’s hard, though, because he would never agree to it because it would be like abandoning your team when they’re down but it might be best for him.”