The verdict is by no means in, there are still chapters that remain to be written, but Saquon Barkley missing his third consecutive game Monday night in Kansas City was sure to further embolden the naysayers and the analytics mob who pound the table on the perils of drafting a running back second overall.
While everyone acknowledges Barkley’s wondrous gifts, and marvels at them, you can’t run to Canton to collect your gold jacket if you have missed 17 of your team’s past 24 games.
And a Gold Jacket Guy was who and what Giants GM Dave Gettleman and the entire organization were convinced Saquon Barkley would be. And still can be.
But he is running out of time.
There is still time for him to be that generational running back … but the nature of the position in such a collision sport has served as a reminder that it is safer relying on a franchise quarterback to impact your franchise than it is a franchise running back.
Barkley’s comeback this season from a torn ACL was, more than anything — or anyone else — expected to help Daniel Jones take that next step. They are the twin faces of the franchise and they provided a titillating glimpse into what is possible in New Orleans.
Daniel Jones, also without receiver Kenny Golladay, sure could have used a healthy Barkley instead of Devontae Booker to keep pace with Patrick Mahomes on Monday night.
There is great irony in that Panthers’ star running back Christian McCaffrey has played three games this season. He played three games last season … he was drafted eighth … by Gettleman when he was Panthers GM in 2017.
The theory that a running back with Barkley’s gifts makes everyone better is true only if you fix and build an offensive line that can open holes for him. Giants offensive lines have only served to devalue Barkley. Even still, he was NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“Look, he was a fantastic talent,” ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Louis Riddick told The Post. “I understand that people believe that the return on investment is never going to be enough to justify taking a running back that high relative to the risk that you’re assuming as far as the longevity of running backs, and it’s kinda played out that way with Saquon in terms of the injuries that he’s had.
“But when you have a special, unique player of the caliber of Saquon Barkley, especially given at the time when he was coming out of Penn State, he had Adrian Peterson-like ability in terms of how he could affect an organization, Ezekiel Elliott-type ability in terms of how he could affect an organization. Basically, he has gold jacket ability, and you can’t deny that. I understood it. … I can’t say that at the time I disagreed with Dave in terms of taking him, because I didn’t at the time.”
With Eli Manning nearing the end, Gettleman passed on Sam Darnold and Josh Allen and Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft to try to make one last run with the Only A Giant. Then he switched gears in midstream and began rebuilding. Then he drafted Jones as Manning’s successor in 2019.
“Obviously in hindsight,” Riddick said, “when a guy like that gets hurt, it’s easy to then go, ‘See? That’s why the hell you don’t pick running backs, ’cause you can find them all through the draft, blah blah blah and all this.’ But this was a unique, unique, unique player. Ezekiel Elliott didn’t get hurt, and Adrian Peterson had a helluva start to his career. Guys like that are culture changers, they’re organization changers. And you don’t do that for every running back to say the least.
“But Saquon wasn’t every running back.”
He is also every running back who isn’t Superman. Barkley will turn 25 in February. You hope for his sake that the best is yet to come. That he can change the opinion of all those who are quick to tell you that this is a quarterback-driven league and not a running back-driven league. That he doesn’t look back on the first four years of his NFL career as wasted. He has helped change the culture. He has not been able to change the won-lost record. He has learned a painful lesson that the sun doesn’t always shine on the run to daylight.