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    Saturday, December 03, 2022

    Barkley looks like his old self ... and he is carrying the Giants

    New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs the ball against the Chicago Bears during the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    As soon as Saquon Barkley caught Daniel Jones's pass well behind the line of scrimmage Sunday, a Chicago Bears defender was in his face and in position to cause a major loss of yardage for the New York Giants.

    Barkley had other ideas.

    The fifth-year running back neatly slipped the tackle, reversed field and, with the help of a block from Jones, sprinted past several other Bears defenders for a 15-yard gain on third and nine. The Giants scored a touchdown two plays later, but the significance of the Week 4 scamper was arguably even greater than that.

    It underscored one of the most compelling developments of the NFL season thus far: Saquon Barkley is back.

    After two injury-marred seasons raised questions about whether he could ever regain the incandescent form he showed upon entering the league in 2018, Barkley has returned to the elite tier at his position. Along the way, he has proved to be a desperately needed rock of consistency for a Giants team off to a 3-1 start despite a passing attack still struggling to carve an identity.

    "I think he's really good," Giants Coach Brian Daboll said after New York's 20-12 win Sunday over Chicago, in which Barkley had 146 yards on the ground and another 16 through the air on 33 total touches. "You can use him a bunch. You can use him as a decoy a bunch, but he's one of our better players. I think he touched it about 30 times ... I watch him at practice. He goes out there, he prepares hard, and then he tries to play as good as he can play."

    Barkley was essential in the win, racking up almost half of the Giants' 333 total net yards on a day when New York netted just 71 via the pass. Barkley even ran a Wildcat offense in the fourth quarter after Jones suffered an ankle injury and backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor suffered a concussion. Fortunately for the Giants, facing Chicago's ludicrously pass-averse offense meant they did not have to mount much of an aerial assault, but it also made for the fourth straight game to start the season that New York did not reach 170 net passing yards (including lost yardage on sacks).

    In theory, the Giants have a dangerous group of wide receivers, including high-priced 2021 free-agent signing Kenny Golladay, 2021 first-round pick Kadarius Toney and 2022 second-rounder Wan'Dale Robinson. Daboll, however, has signaled his displeasure with Golladay and Toney by sharply limiting their playing time, while Robinson has been out since suffering a knee injury early in the Giants' Week 1 win over Tennessee. Veteran wide receiver Sterling Shepard made an impressive comeback from a torn Achilles' tendon but then tore a knee ligament in Week 3, ending his season.

    The result is that outside of Shepard and Barkley, New York's leading receivers this season have been the unheralded quartet of wideouts Richie James and David Sills and tight ends Daniel Bellinger and Tanner Hudson. Daboll, in his first season as a head coach after enjoying success as the Buffalo Bills' offensive coordinator, could be sending a message with his wide receiver usage that he wants a culture change. However, with three of the Giants' next four games coming against teams ranked in the top 11 in total offense (Green Bay, Baltimore and Seattle), plus an upcoming date with Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York can't count on continuing to prevail in low-scoring slugfests.

    The good news is that Robinson might be available when the Giants square off with the Packers on Sunday in London. The bad news is that Toney (hamstring), Golladay (knee) and James (ankle) also now have question marks about whether they can play this week, and if so, how effectively. Then there's the quarterback situation. Jones was able to get in a limited practice Wednesday, but Taylor was still sidelined while in concussion protocol. If neither can go, New York's starting quarterback Sunday could be Davis Webb, a third-round pick in 2017 who has seen almost no regular-season action.

    It all points to another huge workload for Barkley. So far, he has been more than up to the challenge.

    Barkley leads the NFL with 463 rushing yards, and his 570 yards from scrimmage and 99 touches also pace the league. The rushing total is the most in Giants history through four weeks, and his yards from scrimmage are second in franchise annals, trailing only the 619 posted by Tiki Barber to open 2004.

    "Not to be arrogant," Barkley said last week of a Week 3 scoring jaunt against Dallas, "[but] when you see plays like ... the touchdown run I had on Monday — making that jump cut inside a hole and making those two guys miss and find a way to score — those are the plays where it kind of puts a smile on your face and you're like: 'That's the guy I know. That's the guy who always was there.'"

    That guy wasn't much in evidence last season, when Barkley mustered just 856 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns in 13 games. It was a far cry from his league-leading 2,028 scrimmage yards and 15 scores as a rookie in 2018, after the Giants made him the No. 2 pick in the draft out of Penn State. Even while limited to 13 games in 2019 after suffering a high-ankle sprain, Barkley ended up with 1,441 scrimmage yards, 11th best in the NFL, and eight touchdowns.

    Disaster struck in Week 2 of 2020, when Barkley suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee during a loss to the Bears. His 2021 comeback got off to an understandably slow start before another injury arrived in Week 5, this time a rolled left ankle after Barkley accidentally stepped on the foot of a Cowboys defender. That first-quarter mishap cost him most of that game and all of the next four, and even after returning for the second half of the season Barkley never quite looked his old self.

    "He was there last year, to be completely honest," Barkley said last week of his seemingly missing rookie of the year form. "I just had a hard time finding a way to bring him out. That's coming with a mental disconnect. I lost confidence, and it's human nature — that happens."

    By the end of training camp, after earning praise from Daboll for his "explosive" performances in practice sessions, Barkley not only had his confidence again but also another mental edge.

    "Do I feel like I'm back? I feel like I'm better, to be completely honest," he said on the "2ndWind" podcast in late August. "I'm older now. I'm 25. I've been through some stuff, you know, ups and downs. Now I'm in a situation where, you know me, I always have the mindset of always being counted out, but now it's actually here. It's actually real.

    "People are really counting me out. People are trying to write me off . . . but now, I have the extra motivation. That extra motivation to push me to go out there and kind of just be like, 'You know what? Shut everyone up.'"

    Barkley has delivered and then some. It remains to be seen whether he stays healthy for the entire season, but the early results have let NFL fans again enjoy the talents of one of the best running back prospects in recent history.