Just 3.6 yards per carry (career-low), 3.1 receptions per game, and on pace to record the fewest touchdowns per game of his career.
Who did I just describe to you? Did I describe 2018’s David Johnson, fresh off a dislocated wrist that cost him most of the 2017 season? Or did I describe 2021 Saquon Barkley, fresh off a torn ACL that forced him to miss most of the 2020 season?
If I hadn’t provided the exact numbers, these two players would be hard to distinguish from one another. Both were Pro-Bowl halfbacks who led the league in yards from scrimmage early in their careers. Both accomplished that feat despite playing on sub-.500 teams, and both can’t seem to reach similar heights to what they accomplished prior to their injuries.
While there are several dissimilarities between the two, Barkley seems to be heading down the same career path that Johnson was forced down — one of great promise, cut short by a devastating injury.
Now, the Barkley enthusiasts among you might be saying something like “Hey, he’s still young! Plus, he’s playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football, clown!”
And that’s true. But guess what, Johnson also played behind a terrible line in 2018. That season, the Cardinals’ offensive line ranked 25th in adjusted line yards (4.0). Thus far in 2021, the Giants’ offensive line ranks 29th (3.79). So, yes, the Giants O-line has played worse than the Cardinals’ line did in 2018. However, Johnson was also playing on a more inept offense. The 2018 Cardinals were at the bottom of the league in passing yards per game, total yards per game, and points per game. They couldn’t do anything on offense, and Johnson certainly didn’t help. Josh Rosen’s ineptitude at quarterback almost certainly played a large role in Johnson’s unimpressive stat line. You can bag on Daniel Jones all you want, but he’s definitely better than Rosen.
As for the youth, it’s true that Barkley (24) is far younger than Johnson was in 2018 (27). Seeing as how a halfback’s prime is widely considered to be between the ages of 27 and 28, that should mean there’s no need to worry. However, other players who’ve suffered similar injuries at similar ages as Barkley show that even young athletes can struggle to return to form.
Take Ickey Woods for example. In 1988, Woods’ rookie season, he recorded 15 rushing touchdowns and led the league in yards per carry. He became a Cincy fan favorite because of his iconic Ickey Shuffle touchdown dance. The following season, at just the tender age of 23, Woods suffered an ACL injury in the second game of the season (sound familiar) and was never the same.
There are several other backs who got hurt before, or right at the start of, their primes and couldn’t return to form, whether it be because of lack of production or nagging injury problems, such as Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster, Mercury Morris, to an extent Christian McCaffrey (obviously, he’s looked good when healthy, but he’s not healthy often), and of course, David Johnson.
Barkley’s age makes it slightly less likely that his ACL injury last season hinders the remainder of his career. However, he’s not immune, and how he’s looked in 2021 has not quelled any concerns many people have. Sure, he’s had some flashy moments such as his one-handed grab this past Sunday, but he definitely hasn’t looked as explosive or elusive as he did during his first two seasons. Plus, an ACL injury isn’t exactly an injury that running backs are known to recover from well.
I hope Barkley breaks the trend and returns to his 2018-2019 form when he averaged 1,734.5 yards from scrimmage. However, I fear that Barkley’s best days may already be behind him. Sure, drafting a great quarterback and building up the offensive line could help, but the Giants aren’t in a place where they can build a capable team around Barkley in two to three years. By the time the Giants are ready to compete again, Barkley may have had to deal with nagging injuries for so long that he’s merely a shell of his former self. Maybe with Gettelman likely gone next season from running the Giants, they can re-build faster, but that’s still a longshot. There is hope Giants fans, perhaps he’ll be traded for DeAndre Hopkins (or the Hopkins equivalent) in a few years.