The daunting task ahead of Saquon Barkley amid Giants recovery

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Saquon Barkley returned to his old Pennsylvania home a couple of months ago. There, he outlined his ambitions for the 2021 season. Barkley was eating dinner with friends when he talked about winning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, and chasing down the 2,000-yard mark.

Bob Hartman, the athletic director at Whitehall High School where Barkley became a legend, thought the Giants running back looked great and sounded determined to bring his vision to life. But what struck Hartman as most profound about Barkley was just how excited he was to return to Whitehall this Friday for a ceremony to retire his jersey No. 21, last worn by his younger brother Ali, now a running back at Temple.

Barkley is scheduled to make the 95-mile drive after Giants practice to the ceremony, and Whitehall’s night game against Liberty.

“It speaks volumes to what Saquon appreciates and what is important to him in life,” Hartman said, “and it makes us feel honored.

“We’re all hoping he stays healthy, and I wouldn’t bet against him. If Saquon has a big year, he will become a part of the fabric of New York.”

That’s what really hurt about Barkley’s devastating knee injury last season, beyond the impact it had on Joe Judge’s first year as Giants coach. Barkley should already be a titanic star in the country’s biggest market. Born in The Bronx and raised in Coplay, Pa., population 3,200, Barkley is a 233-pound package of small-town values and big-city dreams. He has Hollywood good looks, a Greek god’s body and a hunger to go down among pro football’s all-time greats. Barkley is Frank Gifford with bigger muscles and a lot more skill and speed.

But two years after he gave the Giants more than 2,000 rushing and receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, winning the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, his recovery from a torn ACL raises questions and doubts about everything. Asked during camp about committing to Barkley with a long-term contract, team co-owner John Mara said the Giants “need to see him back on the field producing.”

That’s a long, long way from Giants GM Dave Gettleman’s proclamations that the No. 2-overall pick in the 2018 draft was “touched by the hand of God” and “one of those guys that my mother could have scouted.”

Things change quickly in the ultimate blood sport, the NFL, where no ability is half as important as availability. After his high ankle sprain severely compromised him in 2019 and his knee injury wrecked him in 2020, Barkley has to prove he can stay on the field and give Daniel Jones the help he desperately needs.

Barkley’s injuries represent the very reason why Gettleman was ripped for taking the Penn State star with the second pick in a draft defined by high-end talent at the sport’s most important (by far) position. Quarterbacks last a lot longer than running backs because they don’t rely mostly on their legs, they don’t absorb the same number of hits and they don’t end up in the same number of high-speed collisions.

The Giants could have picked Josh Allen, already a Pro Bowl quarterback, or Lamar Jackson, already a league MVP quarterback, to replace the declining Eli Manning. Instead, Gettleman called the devaluing of the running back position a “myth” and said he envisioned Barkley as a future Hall of Famer.

Truth is, Gettleman might still be proven right. Against the odds, Barkley might still end up as the best player in that draft, and as the rare running back who is more valuable than the man under center in a pass-happy league.

But the Giants need to see it this year. Right now. If not in Sunday’s opener against Denver in MetLife Stadium, then in Week 2 or 3, and then for the rest of the 17-game season.

They need to see what they saw in Barkley’s rookie year, and on Saturday afternoons at Penn State. He started off in camp running at, and cutting around, garbage cans and cones, before graduating to live human beings as opponents. Barkley spent a lot of time in a quarterback’s red jersey — a signal to all potential tacklers that he was not to be touched, and one that the running back hated — as his workload increased slowly but surely over time. He didn’t play a single down in the three preseason games, but last week, there he was practicing in full pads and trying like mad to work himself into football shape. That process has continued this week as Barkley moved to the brink of being cleared to play against Denver.

Of course, there’s a difference between being in shape and being in NFL game-day shape. “The best example I can have,” Barkley had said earlier, “is if you played high school basketball and high school football. You can play the whole football season and then go play basketball. You can do all that running, but you’re not in basketball shape. It’s kind of the same thing.”

Barkley predicted it will take some time for his vision, as a runner searching for daylight, to return to where it was before he got hurt. “That just naturally happens when you don’t play football for 11 months, 12 months,” he said. “My eyes are going to be all right because I’ve been watching a lot of film and watching a lot of practice. It’s different than watching and actually going out there and assimilating with the speed. It’s just trusting my steps, trusting my footwork, trusting the scheme and the line blocking, and all that stuff will come back together.”

Well, maybe all of it except the part about the line blocking. Just like Jones has to be concerned about the men assigned to protect him, Barkley surely understands that the Giants’ line is not built to open monstrous holes in opposing fronts. The running back will need to do a lot of his best work on his own.

The good news? As Barkley fights to recover his career, the Giants don’t have to worry about him being anything but a model representative of their business. “He’s never going to embarrass your franchise,” his former Penn State position coach, Charles Huff, now the head coach at Marshall, said before the 2018 draft. “He’s a down-to-earth kid. He’s not The Bronx or the big city. He’d rather sit on the porch, and if three kids come by with a basketball, go out and try to steal their dribble and play with them for two hours.”

The Giants love the person, and they are definitely ready to fall back in love with the player. But that second part is up to Saquon Barkley, and nobody else.

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