Saquon Barkley -- and Giants -- taking right approach by not rushing ACL rehab

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Saquon Barkley runs behind offensive line against Steelers
Saquon Barkley runs behind offensive line against Steelers

Saquon Barkley just wasn’t going to say the words that everyone so desperately wanted to hear. He wasn’t going to promise he’d be back on the field any time soon. He wouldn’t even say whether he thought he’d be ready by Opening Day.

The best he would offer when talking about his return from a torn ACL, in his first press conference since last season, was this: “It’s going to be whenever my body tells me I’m ready. Whenever I’m able to show everyone I’m ready again, that’s when I’ll be able to go out there.”

That’s purposely vague. It’s nerve-wracking for Giants fans. And it might even lead to a little nail-biting inside the Giants organization. But honestly, it’s probably for the best. The Giants don’t need Barkley to be on the field this summer. They don’t even need him to be on the field by Opening Day.

They need him for the season – as much of the full season as possible. They need him 100 percent.

They don’t need him to rush.

“It’s tough because it’s getting closer and closer,” Barkley said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got to continue to stay patient. When the sport you love is taken away from you, you want to be back as fast as you can, obviously. But I’m going to come back to do the best I can for my team, not just for the short span, but for a long time.”

It’s impossible to get any kind of real gauge on where Barkley is during his rehab at the moment, since he hasn’t been seen on the field by the media – or even many of his teammates – since he tore his ACL back on Sept. 20 and then had surgery a little more than a month later. In the seven months since, he’s basically been a rumor. He’s looked great on the workout videos he’s posted on Instagram. Of course, he’s not likely to post any where he might have looked bad.

He refused to say, on Wednesday, almost anything about his rehab except that it’s going “pretty well." He didn’t say it was on schedule. He wouldn’t even say what he’s able to do. He certainly didn’t promise that he’ll soon be back, good as new.

The Giants obviously hope he will be – and they surely hope it will be sooner than later. Privately, that’s their expectation. But really, it’s a hope. They learned what life without Barkley was like last season, and they desperately don’t want to go through that again.

The misery of last year wasn’t all because of the absence of Barkley, of course, but without the man the Giants’ offense was built around, they were the 31st-ranked offense in the NFL last season. They couldn’t even average 18 points or 300 yards per game. Barkley was supposed to be their everything – their engine in the backfield capable of 1,500 rushing yards, and their most dangerous receiver capable of 90 catches. Just his presence would’ve made everyone around him better.

Without him, they got worse.

They may have more weapons now, thanks to the signing of receiver Kenny Golladay and the drafting of receiver Kadarius Toney, but there’s no doubt that this offense will still run through Barkley when he’s on the field. The key to that, of course, is the last part: They need him on the field.

So what’s the point in rushing him back for Opening Day if he’s not 100 percent yet? Better they don’t see him until, say, Week 3, and then he’s physically ready for 15 more games. That seems to be Barkley’s plan – to get to 100 percent, not to rush back for Week 1. And he made it clear he has the Giants’ blessing, too.

“I’m very blessed to be in a great place,” Barkley said. “I know they want to see me healthy. But they want me out there when they know I can be out there, so I can be that guy for my team and hopefully help us have a successful season.”

What that probably means is this: Don’t expect to see much of him at training camp this summer. Absolutely don’t expect to see him in a preseason game. And while it would be great if he really could make a triumphant return on Sept. 12 when the Giants open the season against the Denver Broncos, that’s far from guaranteed. And it’s really not a tragedy if he can’t.

Yes, Barkley can make a huge difference at full strength – something he hasn’t been for a full season since his marvelous rookie year. But that’s even more of a reason why they should play the long game with his health. Because if this is really going to be the season where the Giants are finally real playoff contenders, they’ll need Barkley for a lot more than their opener. They’ll need him much more for the stretch run than they will at the start.

Barkley can see that, too. He knows the Giants have loaded up on offensive talent. He believes they have “a chance to be very special.” And he knows it’s not likely they can be special without him.

So he’s right to practice patience. He should take as much time as he needs to make sure he’s as close to the old Barkley as possible when he returns – whenever that is. It really doesn’t matter how quickly Barkley gets back on the field. It’s more important that once he does, he’s able to stay there the rest of the year.