Stephania Bell says she’s spoken to Saquon Barkley and is confident he’ll have a solid comeback season coming off of his latest injury. (2:08)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There is something different about the Saquon Barkley that we are seeing this year. And it goes well beyond the New York Giants‘ running back being healthier and more explosive on the field this summer.
Barkley has an edge that was generally nonexistent for the first four years of his career. There is a chip on his shoulder that seems to be the size of a Manhattan skyscraper. Instead of tiptoeing in front of the microphone, as he had seemingly done previously to maintain the finely-crafted image he desired, Barkley is letting it all fly.
It began late last year in an interview with Kim Jones on WFAN in New York. It was there that Barkley first issued the warning to “stay on that side of the table when things flip around” after almost three years of injuries. He has reiterated that message in various forms publicly multiple times since then, and it culminated last month with perhaps his most poignant admission yet.
“People are trying to write me off. … You know what? F— everybody. I’m ready to go crazy. And I’m [going to] let the world feel me,” Barkley let fly on the 2ndWind Podcast hosted by two of his close friends.
This would have been surprising had Barkley not said the same thing at this point last year. But this was just an extension of a more open version of the running back that began to surface when things went off the rails last year.
Barkley, 25, didn’t have a great season in 2021. He wasn’t fully healthy, coming off a torn ACL the previous year and then unluckily injuring his ankle in Week 5 when he stepped on the foot of Dallas Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis. He also admittedly was not fully confident in himself and his body.
It led to Barkley rushing for 593 yards on 162 carries (3.7 yards per rush) in 13 games. His rushing yards over expectation per carry was minus-0.28, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That essentially says that when the ball was in his hands last season, Barkley was a below-average running back. Not exactly what you would expect from the second overall pick and Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018.
It spurred the doubters, and now we’re seeing a more vocal version of Barkley.
“I mean, I really … wouldn’t say anything triggered it, but I guess I would say just probably being out a couple of games the last two years,” said Barkley, who has missed at least three games in three of his four professional seasons. “Just probably being fed up, and not even with like the outside noise, but just even with having to sit out games and rehab and all that. All the bad stuff I guess you could say.
“I guess I’m kind of just fed up with that. So, that kind of just takes me to a place where right now I’m just happy, enjoying life, enjoying the game I love, and I just want to go out there and have fun.”
Moments after Barkley uttered those words he went off on the “all pros with clickers” who have critiqued his running style and considered him a dancer. Clearly Barkley has seen and heard the doubters, and he admitted as much to ESPN in an interview earlier this summer. He talked about being active on social media and on his phone, so it’s not something he can reasonably ignore.
“He’s a guy who is not going to forget stuff like that,” said quarterback Daniel Jones, one of his closest friends on the team. “Whether that changes his work ethic or approach, I’m not sure it does. I think he has that naturally. He’s an extremely competitive guy.”
But the outside noise is also not ultimately what drives Barkley for a bounce-back season in his contract year, even if he might use it as motivation.
“It is not really something to prove [them wrong],” Barkley said. “I talked about it with my friends. I have always been like this, even when I train. I always find things to motivate me. I will make stuff up, even before, when I didn’t have doubters. I would say to myself I had doubters.”
Barkley isn’t the first and won’t be the last to do this. Former Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., now a free agent, used to constantly refer to himself as someone who was an underdog his whole life. Yet Beckham went to Isidore Newman, the same prominent high school in New Orleans where Eli, Peyton and Cooper Manning have played, starred at LSU and was the 12th overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft.
But the fact that we’re just starting to hear about this side of Barkley five years into his career is interesting.
“I feel like as we mature as men we understand you just have to speak your truth. Understanding that being humble is a cool thing but speaking your truth is a beautiful thing, and it takes balls to do it,” said cornerback Darnay Holmes, who views Barkley as a friend and mentor. “I feel like he’s grooming himself to be that. He’s a father. He understands that his kid’s looking up to him. So different ways he conducts himself. He knows that his young one is following suit.”
So this new public approach has caught the attention of pretty much anyone who is paying attention. Teammates included. Not that there is anything wrong with it. Motivation comes in many different, shapes and sizes. It also sometimes changes on a year-to-year, week-by-week basis. Perceptive coaches take notice.
“I think you try to learn your players the best you can to motivate them,” first-year Giants coach Brian Daboll said. “Sometimes players can motivate themselves in certain, different ways. I think that’s good. Each player is different. What motivates you might be different than what motivates me. So I kind of let those guys be them, and if something’s on their mind, and that’s motivating them — great.”
Whatever Barkley seems to be doing, it has worked up to this point. He has looked better this summer than at any other point since the start of the 2019 season and is running significantly more confident than last season. He admitted recently he’s “way, way ahead” of where he was at this point last year when he was just cleared to fully return to practice.
It all lines up for a much better 2022 season, as long as he remains healthy.
“He’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen him in. He is playing as good as I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here,” said wide receiver David Sills V, who trains with Barkley in the offseason. “He’s so confident right now. Not that he ever wasn’t, but his confidence is on another level. So we’re all behind him and excited to see what he does this year.”
It comes at just the right time. Barkley is playing on the fifth-year option in his rookie contract. He is set to become a free agent after the season.
There will be plenty of opportunities for him to impress. The Giants don’t have a deep running back room — Matt Breida, Antonio Williams and Gary Brightwell combined for 192 rushing yards last season — and both the team and Barkley are both equally motivated to allow him to shoulder a monster workload.
“Good. He’s looked really good since the spring,” general manager Joe Schoen said. “He’s quick, he’s fast, good hands.”
Barkley seems equally content with how the summer has gone: without any hiccups. He was the only Giants playmaker available every day of practice and declared himself ready for the season before the final preseason game last weekend.
In Barkley’s mind, he’s back. And not in simply a physical manner.
“Just getting back to being myself, and when I say that, I am not even talking about hurdling, jumping, breaking long runs,” he said. “Just smiling again and just enjoying it. Enjoy football. That is where I am at right now. I have been doing a lot of work not just on my body but on my mental. And I am at peace.”
And he’s not afraid to tell you about it.