Ex-Penn State star Saquon Barkley takes aim at NFL rushing title, wants to be 'great'

Newsday (TNS)
  • Saquon Barkley is third in the NFL in rushing with 1,124 yards.
  • Barkley is coming off a 170-yard performance vs. Washington on Sunday.
  • In his last four games, Barkley is averaging 134.5 yards per game.

Saquon Barkley gets a bit sheepish when he is asked if he knows where he stands in the pantheon of current NFL running backs, also known as “the league leaders in rushing yardage list.’’

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley smiles during a news conference after an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Landover, Md. The Giants won 40-16. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

“I see it on Twitter,” he said on Monday, almost apologizing and suddenly bashful about acknowledging his awareness of the fact that his 1,124 yards are third best, behind only Ezekiel Elliott (1,262) and Todd Gurley (1,203).

But the former Penn State standout has no reservations about stating where he wants to be among that group. When that topic comes up, his eyes become more focused, his cheeks harden and he speaks as directly as possible. His words suddenly move with the kind of force that he brings to his runs on the football field.

“I want to be great,” he said. “I want to go down as one of the best. That’s not going to happen in one day. You have to work for it, obviously with the help of your teammates.”

So the rushing title, that’s on the Barkley bucket list?

“If I don’t get it this year, I’m going to get it at some point,” he said. “I promise you.”

Good at keeping promises: Barkley is pretty good at keeping promises. On Sunday, after dropping a pass that ruined an early Giants drive, he vowed to his teammates that he would make up for it. By halftime, he had contributed a 78-yard touchdown run and a 52-yard gain, and he finished his day early in the third quarter with a season-high 170 yards on the ground.

The rookie does have a chance to top the rushing list this season, something no Giant has done since Eddie Price in 1951.

First of all, he trails two players on teams that have fairly firm grips on division titles, meaning that their coaches could deem it wise to give them some rest in the final game or two of the schedule.

Giants relying more heavily on Barkley: The Giants, meanwhile, seem to be going in the opposite direction in terms of running back usage. As the season has progressed, they have begun to lean more heavily on Barkley.

It’s a philosophical adjustment they made during the bye week. Barkley averaged 8.2 catches and 13.9 carries through the first eight games. In the last five, he has averaged 4.0 receptions and 19.6 carries.

The only second-half game (before Sunday’s blowout) in which Barkley did not have at least 20 carries was the one the Giants lost to the Eagles. He gained 94 yards on nine carries in the first half but carried only four times in the second.

“I think we as coaches have to do what’s best for our team based on the players that we have,” Pat Shurmur said. “But from the beginning of time, a team that can run the football has a better chance to play good team offense. I really believe this . . . Defenses are too good if you just start the game dropping back and throwing. I think you’ve got to be able to run the ball throughout, and it helps not just for your offense but for your whole team. I don’t know if that’s bucking a trend, but I think we as coaches all know that.”

Getting on a roll: In the last four games, Barkley has averaged 134.5 rushing yards per game. If he can maintain that pace through the final three, he’ll finish with 1,527. That would have been enough to win the rushing crown in three of the past four seasons.

Barkley shows no signs of slowing down, either in the big picture or the small. His 78-yarder was, according to the NFL’s NextGen stats, the fastest speed a running back has reached on a touchdown this season. He hit 21.91 miles per hour.

“I’ve never seen him run that fast, even in college,” Shurmur said (although Barkley said he topped that speed at Penn State). “There’s people that look at that kind of stuff, but when I was watching the run and then saw it again on the tape on the train ride home, just my naked eye, it looked like he was running pretty fast.”

Running backs aren’t judged by speed, though. They are judged by yards.

“I’m a football player, not a track runner,” Barkley said.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win the race.

By Tom Rock tom.rock@newsday.com @TomRock_Newsday