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Saquon Barkley's comeback transcends Giants-Cowboys rivalry

SAQUON-BARKLEY-EZEKIEL-ELLIOTT

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley will put a pair of close friendships on hold Sunday when the Giants visit the Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium.

The Giants' fourth year running back is a popular player who sometimes seems as if he has a relationship with everyone who wears an NFL uniform. He is tight with two Cowboys, running back Ezekiel Elliott and rookie linebacker Micah Parsons.

Elliott was one of the numerous players Barkley heard from after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the 2020 season.

"When I got hurt, he hit me up on Instagram, I believe," Barkley said. "Any time we see each other, it's nothing but love, nothing but respect. He's one of my favorite players to watch, one of my favorite players to go against. I've been going against him since I was 18-years old at Penn State, (and it was) his last year at Ohio State. So, I've always been a big fan of him, and to see him starting to come back and show the world he's still elite and he's still that guy, which everyone else pretty much knew that. I'm just happy for him and look forward to seeing him Sunday."

Elliott entered the league as the fourth overall selection in the 2016 NFL and Barkley followed as the second choice in 2018. Though this is their fourth season as the best running backs in the NFC East, they have played in the same pro game just three times – Week 2 in 2018 and Weeks 2 and 9 in 2019. Elliott missed the second meeting of Barkley's rookie season because Dallas had clinched the NFC East title and he was held out by coach Jason Garrett, who now coaches Barkley as the Giants' offensive coordinator. And Barkley missed both games last season.

"It's always a fun matchup going against him," Barkley said. "Obviously, it's not like you're just going against Ezekiel Elliott. But as competitors, you tend to look up a bit more when you're going against a guy like that and see what he's doing, and it helps motivate you and want to push you to do a little better."

Barkley and Parsons share a connection as former Penn State Nittany Lions. There was speculation the Giants might select Parsons at No. 11 in the first round of the 2021 draft, but they traded down to No. 20. Parsons went to the Cowboys with the 12th pick.

"Micah's my guy," Barkley said. "Actually, I was texting him when it happened, and he was up there and obviously I saw the trade. I'm happy for him. He got drafted to a great organization, a great team and he's a heck of a player and I think he's showing how special he is already (Parson leads Dallas with 2.5 sacks) and he's only going to get better. He's a freak athlete. You see clips of him playing defensive end and then you see him playing linebacker. You see him covering. You see just how fast he is running to the ball. He's a special player. (I'm) happy for him that he's having a lot of success and can't wait to look forward to going against him on Sunday."

Parsons stayed at Barkley's house before the draft, but those slumber parties are on hiatus.

"Yeah, it wouldn't be on the weeks we play each other, but we're good friends," Barkley said. "I kind of help recruited him to come to Penn State. Obviously, (Penn State head) coach (James) Franklin and all those guys, (defensive coordinator/linebackers coach) coach (Brent) Pry and (Giants defensive line coach and former Penn State associate head) Coach (Sean) Spencer did a really good job of helping me get there, too. So, I knew him since he was 17, 18-years old and I was happy to see a guy from the area he's from, he put a lot of hard work in to be able to come in the NFL and (he's) slowly emerging as one of the marquee players in the NFL. I'm just happy for him. (In the) offseason, yeah, it's a lot of love. But right now, it's not as much love as it would be in the offseason, I'll say that."

View photos of Giants running back Saquon Barkley.

Barkley has a different kind of connection with Dak Prescott. In 2016, the Cowboys' quarterback was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the award Barkley won two years later. Both players suffered season-ending injuries early in 2020. Barkley tore his right ACL on Sept. 20 in Chicago and Prescott suffered a fractured ankle in Dallas against the Giants three weeks later.

Each is a prime candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Prescott took an early lead. He threw four touchdown passes in a victory against Carolina last week to raise his season total to 10. The Cowboys have won three consecutive games and their only blemish is a two-point road loss on opening night at defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay.

But Barkley seems stronger and better each week. Last week in New Orleans, he finished with 126 scrimmage yards (74 receiving, 52 rushing), including a 54-yard touchdown reception that sparked an 11-point comeback in the fourth quarter. His six-yard touchdown run was the decisive score in the Giants' 27-21 overtime victory.

Did the long touchdown – on which he made a nifty cut inside to elude safety Marcus Williams – or powering his way into the end zone make Barkley feel like his pre-surgery self?

"First one got me in my bag," he said. "After I scored, I was like, 'Yeah.' In my bag means in the zone, I got in my zone. I liked the last one. It probably made me feel like I'm getting closer to feeling better. Just the fact because the play before that I was in, I fumbled the ball. Obviously, you fumble, and you go out. I got my mind right back into it and I was still with it and to be able to go out there and they handed the ball off and trusted I'd make those cuts and get in the end zone was big for the team and also big for my confidence. … I know that this is going to be an every-week thing. Everyone is going to ask me about my knee, but like I said, I just keep trusting people – the trainers and all the people I talk to knowing that every single day I got to keep going in there and keep working with it and that's something that I'm going to keep doing."

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will continue to creatively deploy Barkley.

"He's just a really good player," Garrett said. "He's a really good player as a runner. His ability to run the ball inside like we saw the other day, to make space plays in the running game. Being a receiver out of the backfield but also line up outside and make little plays and also make big plays. He's capable of doing that."

And the Giants are confident Barkley will continue to show it.

View rare photos from the historic rivalry between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.