Saquon Barkley’s Giants star comes with all of its burdens

There have been prickly issues surrounding Saquon Barkley from the moment the Giants took him with the No. 2 pick on the evening of April 26, 2018. The one that has the most legs is the simplest one: Why would Dave Gettleman have used a franchise-quarterback-sized pick, in a draft flush with potential franchise QBs, on a running back?

And even as Barkley became an immediate sensation — 2,028 yards from scrimmage as a rookie, back-to-back thousand-yard rushing seasons in his first two years, despite an ankle injury last year — and even as many of those franchise QBs have struggled to live up to their billing, there has been this gnawing concern:

What if the Giants — in full-blown, multiyear rebuilding mode — waste the peak years of Barkley’s career that combine early brilliance and moderate cost?

After Monday’s 26-16 loss to the Steelers, we can add another, new-and-improved wrinkle to the entirety of the equation: Right now, Barkley is the Giants. He is their star. He is their face. Daniel Jones is in the foxhole with him, but make no mistake: It is Barkley’s foxhole. All eyes are on him. Every ounce of attention — and scrutiny, and skepticism, and scorn — fastens to his No. 26 jersey.

So when he has a historically difficult night running the ball — 15 carries, 6 yards — the alarm bells clang. And when one of his notorious early career weaknesses — blocking in pass protection — is exploited by a defense well-schooled in feasting on such things …

Well. That’s when the air horns start to blare.

“I watch the good and learn from the bad,” Barkley said Thursday, a day after ex-Giant Tiki Barber questioned whether he could ever be a third-down back with his blocking woes, a day after — God bless 2020 — O.J. Simpson took to Twitter to passionately defend him.

“I watch myself and see where I can get better.”

If the Giants had been anything resembling a functional operation the past few years, Barkley could have worked as part of a tapestry, part of a group learning to win, learning to compete at this level. But the Giants have been a wreck across every second of Barkley’s time here. From his first game — 106 yards out of the chute against the Jaguars, Week 1, 2018 — he has been the Giants. That’s an absurd onus for any player.

But that is Barkley’s burden.

Barkley, being Barkley, understands. He gets it. He accepts it. He said he takes Barber’s barbs not as disrespect but as “a challenge.” He has remarkable perspective for someone who is not yet 24 years old.

“The game happened,” he said. “I had 15 carries for 6 yards. That’s, I guess, the second-lowest of all-time for someone with 15 carries. Guess what? I came to work with a smile on my face, ready to get better. My motivation is to be great myself. I don’t need extra motivation. I want to come in and get a W for the Giants.”

The truth is, if Barkley was the Giants’ biggest problem, then the Giants would be in a lot better shape than they are, despite the generally feel-good reviews yielded by opening night against the Steelers. But Barkley isn’t even in the Bottom 20, not even after spending most of Monday night in reverse.

Can he be a better blocker? There is no disputing that. Will he have to be creative to find and exploit holes behind an offensive line that is now in Year 3 of being a weekly comedy of calamity? Unless he wants more record-setting games like Monday’s, that’s a must.

But it should also be important to remember Barkley’s brilliant spasm of beauty Monday night, when he caught a quick pass from Jones at the Giants’ 13-yard line, saw a sliver of an opening, sped through in a blur, dashed downfield, stiff-armed Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, then hurdled Mike Hilton. It was 38 yards of pure Saquon. Pure magic.

Plays like that don’t make Barkley bulletproof from criticism when he fails to pick up a blitzer, and they shouldn’t. But they do serve as a reminder that the one thing — quite literally, the only thing — that has made the Giants tolerable to watch the last two-plus years is knowing he could do something exactly like that any time he touches the ball.

Barkley is smart enough to know where he needs to improve. He is skilled enough to make that happen. He wants to be great. He will do the things necessary to be great. And will have to do it with every eye laser-focused to him, every game, every week, because for now and for the near future, he is one of the only things worth looking at for the team in blue. That’s his burden.

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