On one of the most important running plays of the New York Giants' win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, Saquon Barkley didn’t even touch the ball.
Down 20-13 but standing on Tennessee’s 17-yard line with just two minutes left in the game, the Giants were facing a crucial fourth-and-1. Convert, and hope would survive. Fail, and the Giants would lose their sixth straight season opener. So with one yard to go, you give the ball to Barkley and hope, right?
Not this time. Quarterback Daniel Jones faked a handoff to Barkley, who drew pretty much all of Nissan Stadium to the right side of the line … leaving Jones a clear field to scamper for a first down. Four plays later, the Giants were in the end zone, and one successful Barkley dive after that, and the Giants seized their first lead with 69 seconds left in the game.
Jones was able to run so free, so untouched, because Barkley had been so dominant all game, piling up 164 yards on 18 carries, and another 30 yards on six receptions. His 68-yard rumble was his longest run since his second year, in 2019. The Titans simply couldn't afford to take him for granted on Sunday, preseason rankings and harsh judgments on his remaining abilities notwithstanding.
Barkley looked, in short, like the kind of back the Giants dreamed they would be getting when they drafted him second overall in 2018 — and dropped him right in the middle of a maelstrom of poor planning, incompetent management, misguided coaching and organizational dysfunction so complete it sabotaged even Barkley’s vast talent. A torn ACL cost him all but two games of the 2020 season, an injury from which he’s only just now recovering.
“That first year (after the injury) it was tough. But the second year is even better,” Barkley said after the game. “At the end of the day, I learned a lot from the previous year. ‘Keep trusting that process’ made me be able to go out there today and not even think about it.”
Before anyone starts dreaming of another Giants postseason run — or even a winning record — it’s worth remembering that New York needed Tennessee kicker Randy Bullock to miss a game-winning field goal from a distance that he hits three of every four attempts. Within the division, while Dallas may be on the decline, but Washington looked surprisingly spry, and Philadelphia delivered on all of its offense’s promise, posting the NFC’s highest points total for Week 1 heading into Monday night.
January’s still a long way away. As of the first week, the Giants have hit their first mark in the brand-new Brian Daboll era: don’t be an embarrassment.
For much of the game, though, Daboll's Giants looked a whole lot like Joe Judge's Giants, or Pat Shurmur's Giants, or pretty much every Giants team since the Tom Coughlin Super Bowl runs. Down 13-0 at the half, the Giants appeared lethargic and overmatched. And when Jones threw a shattering interception in the Titans’ end zone with less than nine minutes left in the game, the familiar storyline — same old Giants, year after pathetic year — seemed to be playing out.
But on their very next possession, Barkley and the Giants stomped right back down the field — in large part because of a crucial 33-yard Barkley gain. And even though Barkley fumbled at the end of that run, fate seemed to cut the Giants a break when the ball bounced out of bounds at the Tennessee 11. Soon afterward: that game-changing touchdown and conversion.
“I knew we were going to have a great game, and we were going to make some plays,” Barkley said. “It was just when the timing was right. It wasn't really just a mindset change, it's going out there and just believing in myself, trusting myself, and letting my God-given ability show.”
The two-point clincher serves as an important lesson in how things are different now. The call was gutsy enough all on its own, aggressive when other Giants regimes would have been passive.
Out on the field, Barkley looked toward the sideline and saw Daboll putting up two fingers. Then the two made eye contact.
“He gave me that look,” Barkley said, “and I kind of looked back at him and said, ‘F— yeah.’”
Aggressiveness is one thing, execution is quite another. The play — a shovel pass to Barkley inside — nearly fell apart before it began, a sputtering end to what had been a brief flash of hope. Had the gambit failed, the Giants would be getting shredded on New York sports talk radio Monday morning. But Barkley’s legs kept churning, and he forced his way into the end zone, and for the first time in years the Giants are holding their heads a little higher.
“They're not all going to be perfect,” Jones said, recounting the two-point conversion that almost wasn’t. “Luckily, when you have Saquon Barkley, it works out.”
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.