INDIANAPOLIS — The Giants know what they have in Saquon Barkley. The front office knows, the coaching staff knows and his teammates know. The first 14 games of his NFL career confirmed what was anticipated, in terms of on-field production and off-the-field comportment.
The impression cannot be more positive. Yet Barkley wants more out of himself in terms of proving what he is all about.
“It’s not the end of the year. We still got two games left to get better, and hopefully these next two weeks I can grow in there and even prove to my teammates more that I’m willing to be here for them,’’ Barkley said, “whether it’s on the field or off the field. Just know that they got a competitor that’s going to go out there and compete at a high level for them.’’
The Giants already know this about Barkley, but the rookie cannot help himself. His team lugs a record of 5-9 into Sunday’s game at Indianapolis, and only one team set to take field is in playoff contention.
The Giants are coming off a bleak 17-0 loss to the Titans and head into the final road game of the season without much going for them in terms of health (no receiver Odell Beckham Jr., linebacker Alec Ogletree or safety Landon Collins) or readily apparent motivation.
Coach Pat Shurmur nearly recoiled when asked if it was prudent to shut down Beckham remainder of the season.
“I guess that question leads into that these two games aren’t important, and I don’t believe that,’’ Shurmur said.
This is what a coach almost always says. After all, the won-loss record is affixed to his name. Barkley has not been around long enough to think otherwise, and he is determined to finish up strong — not only by adding onto his impressive rushing (1,155 yards) and receiving (82 catches for 654 yards) totals. He believes his greatest growth this season is the way he has developed as a leader. He is the youngest (21) player on the roster and wants to be, in every way, one of the most impactful.
“Obviously I was never shy to talk or be vocal, but just you know yourself when you’re speaking just how more comfortable you feel, and I felt more comfortable speaking and leading from this point before in the beginning of the year or preseason or camp,’’ Barkley said. “That’s what I would say I’m not happy with, but I’m proud of the most.’’
Barkley speaks softly, and you need to perk up and listen to hear him. It is rare for a rookie’s words to carry such weight, but Barkley is an uncommon rookie. Shurmur pivoted after midseason to revolve much of the offense around him, and Barkley took off, becoming the first Giants running back in 53 years to be selected for the Pro Bowl.
One of the keys to Barkley’s success: He refuses to be satisfied or believe he has nothing else to show the veterans. This is why he is already a leader.
“That’s just the nature of life,’’ he said. “You have to prove yourself. Obviously I wanted to take on that role, but I had to prove it to my team that I’m a guy you can follow and I’m a guy that’s willing to lead, and the way I did that, that’s what I thought I would say who I am — stay true to who I am, don’t come in here with a cocky attitude or you’re the second pick, you’re this, you’re that. That means nothing. Once you get to the organization, you’re just like everybody else and you got to work and prove yourself just like everyone else.’’
Colts TE Eric Ebron vs. ???
Umm, we have a colossal mismatch brewing here. Normally, the job of dealing with a pass-catching tight end would fall to safety Landon Collins and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree. Neither is available for the Giants — Collins is on injured reserve following shoulder surgery and Ogletree is in the concussion protocol. That leaves, essentially, no one to cover Ebron, who has enjoyed a monster first year with the Colts. Ebron had a total of 11 touchdowns in his first four years with the Lions, who gave up on their 2014 first-round pick. In his first year with the Colts, Ebron has 12 touchdown receptions this season — only Antonio Brown of the Steelers (13) has more.
“He’s certainly got some God-given gifts that not many other people have,’’ quarterback Andrew Luck said. “He’s making the most out of it.’’
Can the likes of linebacker Tae Davis or Ukeme Eligwe or safeties Curtis Riley or Sean Chandler hang with Ebron?
Indy indeed: Even the most ardent Eli Manning supporters must come to grips that this could be his final go-round in the NFL. If so, he gets a shot at doing something he has never done before. In his 15 seasons, Manning has beaten every team in the league, other than the Colts (he is 0-3) and the Chargers (0-4). Big brother Peyton was a longtime and star quarterback for the Colts, and Eli was actually drafted by the Chargers in 2004. Of course, Eli did notch one of the greatest victories of his career — Super Bowl XLVI — at Lucas Oil Stadium, but that came against the Patriots, not the Colts.
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“Yeah, you’re like to get a win,’’ Manning said. “Haven’t got one versus them. Trying to work towards that.’’
Nasty Nelson: The Giants were not going to take a guard with the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft. That does not mean they were not enamored with Quenton Nelson coming out of Notre Dame. They saw him a sure-thing Pro Bowler for a decade. They loved him. Nelson went to the Colts at No. 6 and, lo and behold, he was selected for the Pro Bowl, the first rookie offensive lineman in the league to achieve that since Zack Martin for the Cowboys in 2014. The Giants went with Saquon Barkley in the first round and found a Nelson-like guard in the second round, taking Will Hernandez, who has started every game and not missed a snap as a rookie. Hernandez is not Nelson, but few are.
“We thought he was a terrific player,’’ coach Pat Shurmur said of Nelson. “We had him rated very highly. Tough, physical guy, and that’s what you want to get — sort of like our guy Will.’’
Protect the asset: This could be an impending disaster ahead for the Giants. Their defense has produced just 25 sacks this season, which is 30th in the league. Uber-talented Andrew Luck’s survival this season is based on his blocking. His sack total of 16 is the lowest rate of his career, by far. Will the Giants be able to get close to him?
“Their O-Line is improved from a year ago,’’ defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “I think the other thing you see with Andrew is getting the ball out of his hand. Those first and second down throwing opportunities, the pass game matches that kind of philosophy where the ball’s going to come out quick.’’
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Outside view: It has become a weekly ritual: Ask the opposing head coach what he sees when he studies Eli Manning. On cue, these coaches laud Manning and state for public consumption they see no drop-off in his physical skills or his mental acumen. What they say behind the scenes is anyone’s guess. Frank Reich, the Colts’ first-year head coach, is a former NFL quarterback and knows his way around the position. Here is his take: “I’ve seen the same guy, guy who can make all the throws, a guy who has some pretty dangerous weapons and now, really getting an elite running back to have to his complement and be able to use him in both the run game and the pass game,’’ Reich said. “I think any time you change offenses and coaches that you have that transition period, but physically, I see the same guy.’’
This is a hot team alert. The Colts are winners of seven of their past eight games to surge into playoff contention and are coming off a 23-0 beat-down of the Cowboys. The Giants are hurting, and it remains to be seen how much fight they have left in them. This could get ugly.
Colts 31, Giants 13