LEONARD: After bitter loss, Saquon Barkley shows fire New York Giants desperately need

New York Daily News (TNS)
  • The New York Giants suffered a 28-27 last-minute loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
  • After the game, former Penn State standout Saquon Barkley expressed his displeasure about the loss.
  • “I mean it sucks, I’m not gonna lie,” Barkley said. “It sucks. I hate losing.

INDIANAPOLIS — Even Superman has a breaking point.

Saquon Barkley is incredibly polished for a 21-year-old, always careful with his words, highly aware of the All-American brand he built at Penn State and continues to grow in the Big Apple.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) on the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

But Sunday’s 28-27 last-minute loss to the Indianapolis Colts, with the Giants’ rookie running back bottled up for a second straight game, brought out the bucking bronco in Barkley’s athletic personality that could become the engine that drives a Giant revival in 2019 and beyond.

First, Barkley chafed at the suggestion that he may have been injured on a four-yard loss early in the fourth quarter that sent him to the sideline for two snaps, seemingly ailing.

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“I mean, I know people think I’m Superman or whatever, but I do got to come out and get air sometimes,” Barkley said.

Then Barkley considered how difficult this 5-10 season has been, especially after gaining just 74 yards rushing on 35 carries the past two weeks (2.11 average), and he promised:

He hates this, and it won’t be like this around the Giants much longer.

“I mean it sucks, I’m not gonna lie,” Barkley said. “It sucks. I hate losing. It doesn’t sit well in my stomach. I’m always gonna hate losing. I’ve been like that since I was a little kid. I’m a competitor.

“But everything happens for a reason,” he added. “I’m a big believer in that. And I’m a big believer in fighting through adversity. And … right now we are going through adversity. But once we get this … figured out – and I believe it will be soon – we’ll get this thing rolling, we’re gonna be playing at a high level, and we’re gonna look back and laugh at years like this.”

Bam. How’s that for putting his foot down? Now add a better run game and a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. to the Eli Manning who played well for 59 of Sunday’s 60 minutes, and the Giants would have something.

Because unexpectedly, Manning and the Giants’ offense sizzled early and often and led almost the whole way at Lucas Oil Stadium, despite missing Beckham for a third straight game and going pass-heavy early against a Colts defense intent on taking Barkley away.

Manning completed 25 of 33 passes for 309 yards, a touchdown to tight end Scott Simonson and an interception. The 37-year-old quarterback admitted he only wanted one or two throws back the whole day, operating in a mostly clean pocket with solid pass protection from the offensive line, with play-caller Pat Shurmur using a ton of play action and rollouts effectively.

Manning drove the Giants offense to two touchdowns on their first two possessions, including a 55-yard bomb to Sterling Shepard to set up the Simonson TD for the 14-0 lead.

The whole time, though, as Barkley sputtered to 21 carries for 43 yards and five catches for 34 yards and an early 1-yard TD, it felt as though it would come back to bite the Giants if they didn’t get their best playmaker going. And in a sense it did.

That wasn’t the main reason the Giants lost, though. Mainly, their defense caved after an excellent first half, allowing 21 second-half points to Andrew Luck and company, the absences of Landon Collins and Alec Ogletree obvious and costly.

Penalties doomed them, too: Olivier Vernon strip-sacked Luck late in the third quarter in the red zone and B.J. Hill recovered, but the play was called back due to a clear Janoris Jenkins defensive holding penalty. And Colts back Marlon Mack punched in a 3-yard TD run two plays later to cut the Giants’ lead to 24-21.

Conversely, on the Giants’ next drive, they had 2nd-and-2 at the Colts’ 7-yard line and lost two yards on a Barkley run, settling for an Aldrick Rosas field goal and a 27-21 lead.

“When we were down there that last time and had to settle for a field goal was tough,” Manning said. “We did a lot of good things throughout the course, but it just wasn’t quite good enough.”

Then on the Giants’ next drive, a block in the back penalty on center John Greco while backed up on the goal line negated a Barkley 9-yard screen pass. Barkley then appeared to fumble his third-down carry, which would have meant his first career NFL fumble on his 332nd touch of the season. But the play was blown dead, negating a Darius Leonard fumble return for a TD.

Barkley said “the whistle was clearly blown dead,” so he knew that he hadn’t fumbled.

“When you’re going down you have to protect yourself, too,” he said. “And if people are gonna be stripping the ball when the whistle’s blown – I knew that wasn’t a fumble, so that doesn’t really bother me.”

The Colts, of course, forced the punt and executed a game-winning drive on a 1-yard touchdown pass to wideout Chester Rogers and an Adam Vinatieri extra point. Manning and the Giants still had a chance to win with the ball, 55 seconds left and a Pro Bowl kicker who made a 57-yarder three weeks prior against Chicago.

But the Giants had only one timeout remaining, after having 10 men on the field on defense in the third quarter and using another on the late field goal drive.

So after Barkley failed to get out of bounds fighting for more yards on first down and Evan Engram did stop the clock with a first-down conversion, Manning unwisely drove the ball downfield into the arms of Colts safety Malik Hooker.

“I thought I threw it in a pretty good spot,” Manning said. “But obviously (it was) just a little high.”

It was all enough to make Superman a bit testy on Sunday. But that’s good for the Giants in the long run: their opponents won’t like Superman when he’s angry.