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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It isn’t much of a mystery to anyone who’s been paying attention over the last few weeks. That includes Saquon Barkley’s teammates on the Giants. It doesn’t matter that he’s listed as “questionable” for the season opener. They know he’s healthy. They know he’s playing on Sunday.
Yet still, when it finally happens, they are going to feel a rush of excitement when Barkley is handed the ball for the first time since Sept. 20, 2020 when he was carted off the field in Chicago with a torn ACL. Just his presence is going to make everything feel different and better. And as much as their energy will already be boosted by playing in front of a full house for the first time in nearly two years, there’ll still be something extra when Barkley is on the field.
“He’s a captain on the team, he’s a great player on the team and guys definitely look up to him and respect him,” said defensive end Leonard Williams. “Having him out there on the field, psychologically would be a big deal for the team.”
In so many ways, that’s exactly what this Giants team needs as it begins a make-or-break season for so many of them. Forget everything else about last season. Forget all their other problems. That season was essentially lost the moment Barkley was carted off in Week 2. He was their heart and soul, their very best player, and the man they built their entire offense around.
He still is. Only now he’s their most-admired player, too -- the one they all seem to be cheering for, above all others. There hasn’t been a teammate or coach who hasn’t glowed this summer about how hard Barkley worked in his rehab, how determined he was, how he set an example for everyone. They grew to respect him so much more. They were openly rooting for him to return.
So for many of them, they’ll be like fans when he finally does.
“I think the thing about Saquon is the guys respect how he's worked,” said Giants coach Joe Judge. “And they see how hard and long a journey it's been for him to come all the way back from where he's been and what he's done off the field, what he's done from a leadership standpoint, (and) the things he's had to go through and the attitude he's displayed along the way to put himself in position to potentially play.
“In terms of the emotion around that, I think everyone's just genuinely happy for this guy and (they’re) really doing everything they can him to have success when he finally does (return).”
Don’t underestimate what that can do. No, Barkley can’t do it all by himself. That was clear in the one full game he did play last year, when he had 6 yards on 15 carries in a 26-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener. As great as he is, even he couldn’t overcome a terrible performance by his offensive line.
That line is still bad. All the question marks everyone had about the Giants back then are still unanswered. But there’s no doubt about this: The Giants went 6-10 and nearly backed into the playoffs without Barkley last season, even though it took them nearly half a season to rediscover a rushing attack and overcome their psychological wounds.
Just having him there, whatever he’s able to do, however many plays he’s allowed to play, makes the Giants an instantly better team. If it boosts them enough, maybe even a playoff team.
“Oh, trust me,” said offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. “I was on the other side with this guy and he's one of those dynamic players, both in the running game and in the passing game. He's one of those players who can make a three-yard run and a four-yard run and a two-yard and a one-yard run, and then he catches a screen and goes for 65 yards. We've lived that trying to stop him (in Dallas), so it's great to have him on our side.”
Which is not to say Barkley will be the savior who single-handedly ends the four-year run of double-digit losses and reverses the bad trend that has seen them miss the playoffs nine out of the last 10 years. The line, quarterback Daniel Jones, and all his new weapons in the passing game will have a big say in that. Whether the defense can be as good as last season will help determine that, too.
But at least when Barkley is back in the huddle, on the field, and making people miss again, the Giants will feel whole. There wasn’t a moment last year when they looked like the team they expected to be. They were built to be Barkley’s team. And then he was taken away.
That’s why his return will mean so much to all of them, whether it’s a cameo, a supporting or a starring role against the Denver Broncos. He will no doubt get the loudest cheers on Sunday, and the crowd will surely rise the first time the ball is in his hands. His teammates on defense will all be standing on the sidelines, watching. You can bet a few of his offensive teammates will be watching when the play passes them by, too.
At some point this season, if all goes well, maybe having Barkley on the field will feel normal. But on Sunday, it’s just going to feel good. It might even feel a little like a celebration. And the Giants really believe that boost of energy, excitement, and whatever else that comes with it, will carry them a long way.