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Do the Giants have a Saquon Barkley problem?

Maybe not, probably not, but Albert Breer of SI opens a discussion about the star running back that is worth having

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Do the New York Giants have a Saquon Barkley problem brewing?

Albert Breer, NFL insider for Sports Illustrated, thinks they might. Here is a mailbag question Breer received this week, and his pretty direct answer:

From Preston Parker Burner (@PFFcorndog): Is Saquon’s inability to read leverage and attack the lane fixable? Year 4, and it’s still a problem. On days where the run blocking is fine, he makes them look awful by getting tackled for losses by dancing for HRs. Wayne Gallman shouldn’t look like an improvement down to down.

Preston, this is something that’s been on my radar for a long time—and it’s actually something I noticed after Saquon Barkley’s last game against my alma mater in 2017. The then Penn State junior had a 97-yard touchdown on the game’s opening kickoff. But the rest of the day? He had 44 yards on 21 carries and 23 yards on four catches.

So I looked a little deeper at it and saw a pattern. By the time that season was over, Barkley had been held to fewer than 80 yards in seven of his final 11 games and had just 88 rushing yards the week before that stretch started. In 2016, Barkley posted just five 100-yard games and was held to 85 yards or fewer seven times. Which means in his final two college seasons, he had more games of 85 yards or fewer (14) than he had of 100 yards or more (10). Add in his freshman year, and he had 20 of the former and 15 of the latter as a collegian. Want some context? Jonathan Taylor rushed for 100 yards in 22 of 27 games his last two years at Wisconsin, and 32 of 41 games in his three years in Madison. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 100 yards in 17 of his final 18 games at Ohio State, and 26 of his final 30. So those two guys, out of the same conference, were far more consistent coming into the NFL. And sure enough, this trend carried right over into the pros. Barkley’s played 32 NFL games and has rushed for fewer than 50 yards on more occasions (13) than he has rushed for more than 100 yards (11). Moreover, in seven of his 11 100-yard games, he’s had a run of 50 yards or more, which only adds to the idea that he’s a football Adam Dunn (.237 career average with 462 home runs).Now, it’s fair to say that with any running back, there are more factors than just how he’s running—there’s blocking, how a defense is playing him and how offensive coaches approach the game. I also couldn’t tell you whether vision is an issue with Barkley. What I would say, though, is week-to-week consistency of production for Barkley followed him to the NFL, the same it has for Elliott (a two-time NFL rushing champion) and, early on, Taylor.

If I were the Giants, I’d be really careful about giving Barkley his next contract, and I didn’t feel that way about Elliott or Todd Gurley when they signed, mostly because their teams’ offensive identities were centered on the tailbacks. Four years in, you can’t say that about the Giants. We’ll see whether that changes.

Valentine’s View

No one should go ripping Barkley or writing him off ONE GAME into his comeback from a serious knee injury. Breer, though, doesn’t say anything in here about Barkley that isn’t true. Or, that anyone watching the Giants should not have known since the first half of his rookie season.

Remember then-head coach Pat Shurmur calling Barkley out halfway through his sensational rookie season, saying he needed to see more ‘dirty’ runs from Barkley? What he was imploring Barkley to do was stop hesitating and looking for the home run on every play. Take the hole, hit it for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 yards if it’s there and move on to the next play. Don’t turn a 2- or 3-yard gain into a 3-yard loss, which we have all seen Barkley do on multiple occasions.

Barkley responded to Shurmur by rushing for more than 100 yards in four straight games and in five of the season’s final seven games.

Thing is, that tendency remained for the Giants in dealing with life with Barkley as their primary offensive player. He has never been a 3 yards and a cloud of dust kind of runner, a guy you move the chains with or close out game in a four-minute drill. Barkley is a ‘rob the bank, break open the vault and take ALL the money or die trying’ kind of back.

Get him into the open field or to the second level of a defense and the results are often spectacular, sometimes even super-human over his first two seasons. Hand him the ball, ask him to take what’s there, maybe push the pile for an extra yard or half-yard and that, honestly, isn’t something that happens consistently.

After Barkley suffered his devastating knee in 2020, Giants fans loved watching Wayne Gallman run. Gallman doesn’t have nearly Barkley’s speed, power, elusiveness or explosion. He does nothing that is special. What Gallman did in 2020 was hit holes HARD, take the ball where blockers expected it to be taken, put his head down, keep his feet churning and fight for every inch on every run. Because of that, Gallman averaged 4.6 yards per carry, which is one-tenth of a yard less than Barkley has averaged for his career.

Here are some startling numbers from Football Outsiders:

  • In 2018, when Barkley was AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, he was only 40th in the league in ‘Success Rate’ on running plays at 40 percent.
  • In 2019, Barkley was 38th with a running play Success Rate of 38 percent.
  • In 2020, Gallman was 14th — yes, 14th — in running play Success Rate at 54 percent.

Does that mean he is better than Barkley? Heck, no.

As Ottis Anderson told me way back in January, it does mean there is something Barkley can learn from Gallman, now an ex-Giant. Something, in fact, that he had to learn during his own stellar career.

“When I was a rookie and I came into the league every play that I touched the ball I thought I could go the distance. Yeah, I was successful my first year (1,605 yards rushing, named an All-Pro), but the next year after that when people realized I was no longer a surprise it took me a long time to understand.

“What happens is when you have success making big plays out of nothing and you get to the point where every play you think you can go the distance, every play you try and you forget down and distance, you forget situations, all you want to do is make that big run. You have to learn that every play is not a big run but if you keep taking those 2 and 3-yard plays that big play will come.

“It just comes from him growing up, him understanding.”

Anderson said the Giants should “sit down and show him Wayne. Show him films of Wayne ... look at what Wayne did. Wayne took what the defense gave him and he didn’t try to get those home runs every time he touched the football, but you saw them come.”

Barkley is coming off an entirely too pedestrian 10-carry, 26-yard effort in his return to action against the Denver Broncos on Sunday. He said he was rusty in his first action in nearly a year, which was certainly true, and that his game-breaking ability was still intact.

“My explosiveness to me is not a problem. I feel like it’s all there still. I didn’t really give myself the opportunity or had an opportunity to break a long one, so I guess I couldn’t show that,” Barkley said on Tuesday. “Just got to stick with the game plan, stick with the runs, take the dirty runs. When I get the opportunity to make a big play, make big play.”

Thing is, Barkley still doesn’t always take the “dirty runs.”

Center and first-time captain Nick Gates said this on Monday:

“Sometimes there was a little hole here that he could have maybe stuck to, but sometimes there was not a hole at all, and he tried to make a play and he just couldn’t. But we just got to no matter what, just as an offensive line be able to make sure he has a hole to run through and just give him a little bit of something, so that he can see. He’s been out for a whole year, so he has to just regain his confidence in us and get to running the ball again and get comfortable back there.”

There is just a hint of Barkley could have done better with what we gave him in those words.

The Giants have to hope that gets better as Barkley gets more comfortable, gets more belief and trust in his rebuilt knee and what it can do.

Thing is, Breer is also right that the Giants need to watch closely before they give Barkley a big, long-term contract.

The mega-deal the Rams gave Gurley turned out to be a mistake. Elliott is increasingly making the money the Dallas Cowboys paid him look like a mistake.

Maybe Barkley will end up making Breer, and yours truly look silly in the end for wondering about him. He has played one game after a devastating injury, and drawing any conclusions is downright silly.

Honestly, I hope that beginning Thursday night he reminds us of why some of that inefficiency we referenced above can be forgiven. How Barkley’s season plays out, though, bears watching.