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There is so much optimism around the Giants this spring, and with good reason. They loaded up on some much-needed offensive weapons and bolstered their defense, too. And for a couple of years now, they’ve been accumulating talented young players, and they expect that investment to pay off soon.
But there remains one uncontrollable element that is absolutely the key to their success this coming season. In hindsight, it’s also the thing that probably cost them the division title last year and helped stunt their young quarterback’s growth.
They need Saquon Barkley to be fully healthy, to be the remarkable, unstoppable player he was as a rookie.
And the truth, no matter what anyone says, is the Giants just won’t know if that’s possible for another few months. They might not even know for sure until opening day.
They’re hopeful, of course. And they have been for months, both publicly and privately. But there’s understandably never any certainty when they talk about Barkley’s comeback. The last update from anyone in the Giants came from co-owner John Mara on March 31, when he said “We fully expect him to be good as new.” And two weeks before that, Giants GM Dave Gettleman said “Good Lord willing, Saquon will be 100 percent.”
Of course, what else are they going to say? They are going to remain upbeat and hopeful and keep their expectations high -- especially publicly. After all, there’s a long tradition in all sports that every surgery “went well” and every rehab is “ahead of schedule” and every player will eventually be “as good as new”. The truth is rarely that picture-perfect, though. There are often setbacks and challenges that players and teams don’t want the public to see.
But there is definitely reason for Judge to be optimistic. Barkley has looked fantastic and healthy in the workout videos he’s posted on social media – though again, it’s not like he’s going to post ones where he looks like he’s struggling or just slow. He’s also a remarkable athlete with a history of recovering from injuries quicker than expected. That includes 2019, his second season in the NFL, when he suffered a badly sprained ankle that some thought might keep him out close to two months.
He missed only three games then, though when he returned it did take him a few weeks to get going again. He had recovered, but he clearly wasn’t right, and it was eight games before he topped 20 carries or 100 rushing yards.
The Giants need him to recover quickly again and they can’t afford to wait half a season for him to kick it into his usual high gear. They need him to be on that field on opening day, just 10 1/2 months after surgery to repair his torn ACL, looking like he did when he was the 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. For all the offensive weapons the Giants added, this offense is still built around Barkley who will remain their No. 1 option. He’s the safety net in the passing game for Daniel Jones. He is the run game. His presence, no matter what he does, takes the pressure off Jones and the offensive line.
Maybe he wouldn’t have made everything perfect last season, but if he was there to pick up 1,307 yards on the ground and catch 91 passes for 721 yards like he did as a rookie, the Giants offense wouldn’t have been anywhere close to the second-worst offense in the league.
And this is such a critical season for so many – including, obviously, Barkley. His contract expires after next season, which means long-term contract talks are on the near horizon. It’s the most important season for Jones, where the Giants need to decide if he’s really the franchise quarterback they think he is. It’s huge for GM Dave Gettleman, who can’t survive a fourth straight season of double-digit losses and no playoffs. It’s enormous for the whole organization, really – a turning point, they hope, where their decade long slide into irrelevancy is finally reversed.
Without a healthy, explosive Barkley, it’s hard to imagine that happening.
So the Giants will be careful – very careful – with their prized possession. Joe Judge, in a recent appearance on MSG PM, said the Giants will “kind of put him on a timetable of when his body is ready to go” and he promised “to make sure we don’t force him back too early.” In other words, he won’t be on the field with his team at the Giants’ mini-camp in June, and don’t bet on a return to full-time work when training camp starts in late July.
What about later in camp or preseason games? It’s all one big maybe. And it’s certainly possible that the Giants won’t unwrap Barkley until that first game against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 12. They’ll do whatever they have to do to get him into the regular season as healthy as possible. They’re going to act like their season and their futures depend on it.
Because the truth is, it probably does.