Of all the players on the field for these woebegone teams in Sunday’s Giants vs. Jets pillow fight, the one transcendent star is supposed to be Saquon Barkley. He is the one general manager Dave Gettleman said is “touched by the hand of God’’ and the running back the Giants took with the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft, allowing the gleeful Jets at No. 3 to take quarterback Sam Darnold.
The Giants must be able to count on Barkley to churn out yard after yard on the ground, to inhale passes out of the backfield with regularity and to crash into the end zone between 15 and 20 times a season. When a running back is taken with the second pick in the draft, he must be a difference-maker.
There was not much more Barkley could do as a rookie and yet the Giants went 5-11. His second season is a series of starts and stops, losses, and an ailing right ankle that kept him off the field and a bit tentative upon his return. Not much has added up the way Barkley and the Giants want and need it to, and it leads to an uncomfortable question moving forward.
Should Barkley’s load be lightened down the stretch of the season in order to preserve his body for later in his career?
“They’re gonna have to make a decision on how many carries as this season starts to unwind a little bit,’’ Tiki Barber, the Giants’ all-time leading rusher, told The Post.
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“They may have to figure out how to get Wayne Gallman more carries, because I don’t know if it’s worth it. If [Saquon is] not full-bore, if he’s not Saquon as we know Saquon, Rookie of the Year Saquon, he’s got to dial it back, because it’s not worth putting the mileage on as the season is getting away from them.’’
Barkley’s 1,307 rushing yards as a rookie were considered a prelude of things to come, and the smart money for 2019 was him surging toward 2,000 yards. Barkley averaged 5.0 yards per rushing attempt in his NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year season, a figure that is down to 4.6 this season. He has just 401 yards, missing three consecutive games with a high ankle sprain and half of the Nov. 22 game at Tampa Bay when he first suffered the injury.
In order to reach 1,000 yards, Barkley needs to average 85.6 yards in his final seven games.
“Disappointment? No,’’ Barkley said, when asked about his reduced production. “What’s to be disappointed about? Obviously, yes, am I upset that we’re 2-7? I don’t think anyone’s happy that we’re 2-7. Am I happy that I hurt my ankle and I missed 3¹/₂ games this year? No, I’m not happy about that. But, disappointing? No.’’
There are fewer “wow’’ moments with Barkley after a rookie year filled with them. He is such a supreme athlete that it takes a trained eye to decipher what might be missing. Barber averaged 1,528 yards in his last five seasons with the Giants and says he saw signs he was slowing down, despite rushing for 1,662 in his final year.
When he looks at Barkley, he sees a slightly diminished running back.
“I think he’s healthy enough, but I can see how he’s running, he’s trying to protect himself,’’ Barber said. “His first year he had reckless abandon on how he ran, and he’s not doing that right now. And I don’t blame him. Because he’s still nursing that injury, that high ankle sprain. You can see it. You can see he’s a little bit cautious.
“He’s an elite athlete, so he can still be effective, but that difference-making explosion, it’s turned down a tick. He might not be doing it consciously. It’s human nature to protect something that’s not right.’’
Barkley will not be able to hit any of the statistical marks he set for himself, and even if the mundane Giants beat the moribund Jets, there do not figure to be many more wins in November and December.
“It’s a function of the position,’’ Barber said. “It’s a function of carries, it’s a function of hits for running backs. Period. That’s what it comes down to.’’
As the leaves get blown down and away and the temperature drops, the Giants will have to consider how many carries and hits make sense to heap upon their 22-year old star in the dying weeks of a dead season.
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