EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Saquon Barkley jump-cut to his right, then jump-cut to the left as he zigzagged across the field before leaping over Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and lowering his shoulder to run through Avonte Maddox for another four yards. It was a thing of beauty, a dance routine on a football field so pretty J-Lo likely would have approved of its astounding choreography.
The play from last October gets filed among the prettiest nine-yard runs you’ll ever see. Now, the natural inclination is to marvel at the brilliance of the New York Giants running back on these forays. He seemed to produce them with regularity during his rookie season, and again Sunday in the Giants’ Week 1 loss at the Dallas Cowboys.
“My mindset is do whatever it takes and try to be a team leader, be a team player, and help my team win games.” Giants running back Saquon Barkley
Barkley could easily watch the tape in awe like the rest of us when he went through every play from his rookie season, which he did. Only he looks at things differently.
“That can be a 20-yard gain,” Barkley said during a film session with ESPN during which he viewed five randomly selected plays from last season.
It was like Picasso critiquing his own work. It had the feel of someone who had just traveled to the moon, then commented that it wasn’t far enough.
Most would have been content turning that Week 6 play against the Eagles into a positive gain considering the defensive lineman he needed to avoid in the backfield. But maybe this is why Barkley is so great, and can be even better fresh off 2,028 total yards in his rookie season. He’s looking at details, and it’s this next-level self-analysis that fueled his offseason.
“It’s a great run. I made two people miss, jumped over two people. Pretty dope,” Barkley said. “But if I got vertical [after the first jump-cut], instead of a nine-yard run, it could be a 15- to 20-yard run.”
Just about everything is open for improvement in his mind. Physical. Mental. Scheme. It was all in the plan.
When Barkley watched a clip of himself blocking against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4, he noticed too much weight on his heels. Barkley was catching the rusher instead of punching and attacking. On a goal-line run when he was stuffed in Week 13 because a Chicago Bears defensive linemen went unblocked, Barkley wasn’t happy with the way he got vertical and hit the hole. When facing double coverage on a deep pass route against the 49ers in Week 10, he thought there was an opportunity to follow what they call “the wooden red line” better and outrun the defenders.
This is the thought process of the running back most consider to be among the league’s best. Everything is fair game. Nothing, not even the jaw-dropping runs, are immune to criticism for the 22-year-old star who is the centerpiece of the Giants’ offense.
“There’s something you can always nitpick,” he said.
Maybe with a telescope and hours to dig several layers past the overt brilliance. Barkley rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He added 91 catches for another 721 yards and four touchdowns. His 2,028 total yards was second all time to Eric Dickerson among rookies. Still, he is convinced there is room for improvement.
Barkley insists that through work with trainer Ryan Flaherty and the Giants’ strength and conditioning staff this offseason he’s “a little bigger and stronger.” He has actually dropped a couple pounds (to 228 or 229) but added muscle to an already sculpted physique. He has increased his strength in a more practical manner by concentrating on more specific movements that translate to the football field. Instead of a wide-grip bench press, he focused on a close grip because when he’s blocking, there’s no time when his hands should be far apart.
Sterling Shepard, Barkley’s training partner, close friend and teammate, recalls a moment when they were doing a hamstring curl drill and it took five guys to keep Barkley’s body down. Two of them were massive offensive linemen. Shepard thinks Barkley is quicker than last season. That is scary.
“I just see a big difference in that,” Shepard said.
Barkley did hit 21.76 mph on a 59-yard run on Sunday in Dallas, according to Next Gen Stats data. It was the fastest recorded speed for any ball carrier in Week 1.
The Pro Bowl running back also believes he’s seeing things differently. His recognition of defenses is more advanced in his second professional season. It’s the natural evolution, which Shepard says he could see when they watched film this summer. Barkley believes he can better anticipate what the opposition is doing in real time. This is where his running backs coach, Craig Johnson, expected the biggest gains.
“Might be in the little details that people might not see,” Johnson said during the offseason.
Johnson noted Barkley’s obsessive nature is similar to what he’s seen from other great players. Johnson worked for years with Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
“Well, with me, I’m real picky with myself and I study a lot of the greats,” Barkley said. “Whether it’s basketball players, football players, golfers — they’re never satisfied.”
Among those whom Barkley used as study subjects this offseason was the world’s No. 1 golfer, Brooks Koepka. The two have since become friends.
The Week 1 opener against the Cowboys didn’t do anything to dispel beliefs Barkley might have improved. He rushed for 120 yards on 11 carries Sunday, which included the 59-yard run in the first quarter. He now has eight runs of 40-plus yards since the start of last season. That is double any other player.
The lack of touches (15 total) won’t be a regular occurrence.
“You don’t go into it thinking he isn’t going to touch the ball,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. “That’s just how that first half played out.”
The thought of 400 touches this season doesn’t scare Barkley. He said that is what he trains for throughout the offseason. If that’s what it takes for the Giants (0-1) to win, then bring it on.
It could happen. The Giants built their offense and team around Barkley. With receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in Cleveland and quarterback Eli Manning‘s starting role in jeopardy at the tail end of his career, the Giants have a new face of the franchise.
Barkley is handling it much like he does would-be tacklers.
“I don’t really read too much into it — face of the franchise,” he said. “I guess that you can say that I’m probably the guy that they talk about the most. … My mindset is do whatever it takes and try to be a team leader, be a team player, and help my team win games.”
With it comes responsibility. Wins and losses now fall on Barkley as they do the quarterback.
“First off, it’s about the team success and winning games,” Manning said when asked about Barkley in Year 2. “You’ll have just a smarter player knowing the reads, the runs, getting involved in the pass game. Just doing everything a little bit smoother.”
If it’s possible. Barkley was pretty good his rookie season. But he’s certainly trying to improve considering the harsh self-evaluation he employs.
In the opener, there was the 59-yard run. Surely Barkley will nitpick that. He was tracked down from behind. He could have scored. You could see as he immediately bounced to his feet after the run that there was regret.
This will only make him better.