Why Saquon Barkley's injury came at a bad time for Giants

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Saquon Barkley on cart, behind view
Saquon Barkley on cart, behind view

The sight of Saquon Barkley riding off to the locker room on a cart on Sunday was as familiar as it was nauseating. That’s three straight years now that he had to take that sad, lonely ride off the field while his franchise held its breath and watched him in obvious pain.

And when he was spotted after the game on crutches, with his left foot in a walking boot, that was sadly familiar, too. It’s become even more familiar, in fact, than the sight of Barkley freezing a defender with a violent cut on the field, or flashing his speed as he takes off for a long gain.

And that’s why, even though this injury may not turn out to be Barkley’s worst – the initial diagnosis was a sprain, according to a source, that might only keep him out a week or two -- it certainly came at the worst possible time.

Barkley was just starting to look like his old self, on his way to proving that he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL that ended his season last year in Week 2. He knew that this year, maybe more than any other, he needed to show everyone he wasn’t injury-prone, that he could stay healthy.

Then with one literal misstep, all that was gone.

There’s no avoiding the label now. The 24-year-old Barkley is an injury risk. He’s an injury-prone player the Giants have to be wary of as they ponder both his and their future. Even if he comes back quickly and this doesn’t cost him the three games he lost to a high ankle sprain in 2019 or the 14 he lost to his knee injury last year, that label is still going to stick.

And no matter how much time he misses, it will cost a lot.

The most obvious way it’ll cost him is with his next contract, which he could’ve been on track to negotiate after this season. He’s signed through the 2022 season, so there’s time, but at this point the Giants will have to use all of it to make a decision. Because how could they justify making a huge financial investment – likely $17 million per year with $30 million-plus guaranteed -- into a player who has already been hurt three different times in the last three years?

And it’s not just about the money, either. How can the Giants continue to build around him as the centerpiece of their offense? He is arguably just as important to their offensive plan as quarterback Daniel Jones. But he’s no help at all to them if he can’t stay on the field.

Not that any of this is Barkley’s fault. It’s just a run of terrible luck for an incredibly talented player. The injury he suffered on Sunday was probably the unluckiest of them all. It came after Jones sailed a pass over his head late in the first quarter. Barkley pulled up and slowed down once the play was over. But then he accidentally stepped his left foot onto the foot of Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis.

Oct 10, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) heads to the locker room on a medical cart in the first half during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
Oct 10, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) heads to the locker room on a medical cart in the first half during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.

The video of how Barkley’s ankle bent in the wrong direction was sickening. The shot of his swollen ankle on the sidelines was even worse. And it didn’t make it feel any better that it didn’t come with a football move, as a result of a cut or a player hitting him low. It was sheer randomness. He literally just stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time.

None of this, of course, is the way it was supposed to work out, despite all the criticism GM Dave Gettleman got for taking a running back with the second pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. Yes, it was high for a player who played such a dangerous position. But the Giants were sure Barkley was special. He was that “gold-jacket player,” in Gettleman’s words, who was “touched by the hand of God.”

Even that divine intervention hasn’t been able to keep him healthy, though, which puts Barkley and the Giants at a crossroads. He is their biggest star, their most popular player, and arguably their best player when he’s healthy and on the field. They will hope with all their hearts that he comes back quickly and proves how good he can be.

But even if he does, how can they trust that he won’t step wrong and get hurt again?

It’s a risk with all players in such a dangerous sport, but after being burned three times with Barkley, they have to be terrified of it happening again. Like it or not, it’s a very real factor now as they plot the direction of their franchise and divvy up their future cap space.

The Giants are on their way to their fourth straight losing season, and maybe their fourth straight with double-digit losses in the Barkley Era. And a lot of that has to do with the constant absence of a player who just hasn’t looked special since his remarkable rookie year.

Will he ever look special again? Will he ever make it through a season healthy? Will he ever even make it past Week 5, since this is the latest he’s suffered an injury in the last three years?

The Giants can only hope, but they can’t bet on it any longer. They need a healthy Barkley to return quickly and help save them right now. But they can no longer be comfortable counting on him for the future. He’s not going anywhere yet. He’s still got two years left on his contract.

It’s just going to be hard for the Giants to justify making an investment in him any longer than that.