EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A good 30 or 40 minutes after New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley had taken a career-high 35 carries against the Houston Texans, he was in the locker room — still in full uniform, dotted with turf stains — looking as if he had given every last drop of energy to that 152-yard performance.
Barkley and the Giants were fresh off their Week 9 bye on that mid-November afternoon when his workload reached its apex. Despite what seemed like a temporary bump in the road the previous game against the Seattle Seahawks — 53 yards on 20 carries — he was in the midst of perhaps his best professional season, even better than when he burst onto the scene as Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018.
Turns out that game against Houston has been the outlier in the second half of this season. Barkley has rushed for 63 yards or less in five of the past six games. New York (1-4-1) has won just once.
It was hard to imagine that afternoon that Barkley’s effectiveness would fall as drastically as it has. He was an MVP candidate, the oddsmaker’s frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year and seemingly a lock to keep racking up massive numbers.
The reason for the decline is hard to pinpoint. It could be his massive workload (79% of the offensive snaps), injuries on the offensive line, a lack of overall execution in the run game or the amount of attention he attracts from defenses due to a lack of accompanying playmakers.
Barkley has strongly denied that it was because of injury or that he was wearing down from a heavy workload. He called that narrative “B.S.”
“I’m just not playing well,” Barkley told ESPN before he suffered the stinger last week that almost kept him out of Sunday’s blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The numbers support his claim. Three of Barkley’s top four registered speeds this season have come after the bye (two in Week 10 against Houston and the other on Thanksgiving against the Dallas Cowboys).
“I think it comes down to execution. I feel we executed a lot better early on,” tight end Chris Myarick said. “That’s what we’re focused on getting back to.”
The Giants have talked a lot recently about needing to run the ball more effectively on first down. They haven’t been able to do that recently, instead relying more on the pass.
While Barkley may not be playing as well as he did earlier this year when he was hitting holes harder than ever, it hasn’t helped that three starting offensive linemen — left guard Ben Bredeson, center Jon Feliciano and right tackle Evan Neal — have missed games because of injuries.
That could help explain why Barkley led all running backs with 440 yards before contact the first seven games of the season. He’s had just 209 yards before contact in the ensuing six contests, which ranks 17th in the NFL. Barkley’s overall yards per carry during that span has dipped from 5.1 to 3.31.
Quarterback Daniel Jones dismissed the idea that Barkley is wearing down or being affected by injury.
“I certainly haven’t seen that,” Jones said.
Barkley did deal with a minor shoulder injury that cost him a few plays earlier in the season. But that occurred in early October against the Green Bay Packers and he was off the injury report before the end of the month.
The NFL’s fourth-leading rusher was playing 83% of the team’s offensive snaps entering last week’s game against the Eagles, when he logged a season-low 20 plays, in part because of his injured neck and the lopsided score. Barkley is off the injury report this week and feeling “way better” entering Sunday night’s massive matchup with the Washington Commanders (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
His workload is expected to be back to normal. Coach Brian Daboll said Thursday that Barkley will have “no restrictions.”
Now the Giants just have to find a way to get Barkley back to form. Even with the weapons around him limited and the defense fixated on his every move, Barkley managed at least 70 yards rushing in each of the first seven games this season.
What has been missing is the explosive play. Only one of Barkley’s eight runs of 20 or more yards have come in the past six games.
“I think some of the things earlier in the year, too, is we had some good numbers but some of those were from big runs, too,” Daboll said. “So, you look at the type of game you’re playing in, whether you’re behind, whether you’re getting as many touches as you want to get. You look at the play design; you look at all 11 on the same page. I think it’s probably a variety of things. Certainly missing a few big plays out there is one of them.”
Barkley expressed a similar sentiment. But he’s not hearing any of the excuses.
“Try to make plays. That’s what I feel I have to get back to,” Barkley said. “Feel like I’ve been lacking the last couple weeks being the guy making those explosive plays, especially when it matters most. Not cause of being banged up. It’s the truth. I haven’t had a big run in a long time.”
There would be no better time for that to change than Sunday night, in one of the most meaningful games of his career.