EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley aspires to be something he already is, because it will help him achieve something he wants.
"I want to be elite overall, whether that's in the pass game or the run game," Barkley, the Giants' splendid running back, said today. "But at the end of the day, it's about winning games. If I can do that by helping my team in the pass game, then that's the case. If that's by helping them in the run game, then that's the case. If it's by stepping up and making that key block, we might throw the ball 40 times a game and I might have to be responsible for key blocks, then that's what I have to do. It's not just focusing on just me being elite. It's whatever it takes to help the team win."
By any objective measure, Barkley is already one of the NFL's very best running backs as he enters his third season, which begins Monday night in MetLife Stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In his first two NFL seasons, Barkley rushed for 2,310 yards on 478 carries, a 4.8-yard average. He also caught 143 passes for 1,159 yards. Barkley scored 23 touchdowns, 17 on the ground. He was the 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the first player in Giants history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons and joined Carolina's Christian McCaffrey and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara as the only NFL players to total more than 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in 2018-19. Last Dec. 22, Barkley set a franchise record with 279 yards from scrimmage (189 rushing and 90 receiving) in an overtime victory at Washington. Barkley's 279 yards was the highest total by any NFL player in 2019.
Those and so many more Barkley statistics are, um, elite. But he will strive to post better numbers and be a more well-rounded player when he hits the field Monday night.
"When I think of a complete back, the best complete back, the backs that come to my mind are the Walter Paytons, the Marshall Faulks," Barkley said. "When you think of Walter Payton, if you see clips or highlights of his in-between tackles, outside tackles, catching, blocking, there are even times he's throwing the ball. I'm not saying I can throw the ball as far as Walter Payton. I'm not hinting a trick play coming up.
"But those are things. I don't want to be just a special interior running back. I don't want to be just a special outside the box running back, catch the ball here and there. I truly believe that with my God-given ability and the work that I put in that I can be special in all phases. All phases, not just one dimensional. That's something that I've been working on. I want to be elite in running the ball. I want to be elite outside the tackles. I want to be elite in pass pro. Be elite in catching the ball. Those are things that I truly believe I can be, and those are things I'm going to continue to work for and strive to be."
View photos of Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin knows his defense will be tested when it faces Barkley for the first time.
"Man, he's going to be a big-time challenge for us," Tomlin said. "I spent a great deal of time this summer studying and appreciating his tape. I had a great deal of respect for him when he came out of Penn State being a regional guy but hadn't seen a lot of him since he's been in the league and as an NFC guy.
"This is a guy that's capable of really impacting the game in all circumstances, and really in many ways. He has the quicks and the vision to be a quality interior runner, and the power also to be a quality interior runner. He has burst and acceleration and top-end speed that allows him to excel on the perimeter game and in open grass. Five to 10-yard runs can quickly become 50 to 60-yard runs when you're facing a guy with the talent of Saquon. We're going to spend a lot of time preparing to minimize his impact."
Barkley seemed humbled that a Super Bowl-winning coach who is beginning his 14th season coaching the black and gold would speak of him with such respect.
"That means a lot coming from a guy and coach like Mike Tomlin," Barkley said. "Just growing up and being a fan of the game of football, I always had much respect for Mike Tomlin and his teams and have so much respect for the team right now. Tremendous players all around, from their defense to the backline. They're disruptive. The guys make plays in the backend, the linebackers move well, tackle well in space. To be able to have that compliment from a coach like that definitely does mean a lot."
Tomlin certainly considers Barkley elite. But here's the thing about Barkley. One of the attributes that makes him great is his ceaseless drive to improve. It's why he answered as he did when asked how he will know when he attains the status he craves.
"I will never be there," he said. "I'm going to be completely honest with you. I keep saying I'm going to work for it and work for it, but the way I view myself and the confidence I have in myself, the goal for me to be elite is so high that I don't think I will ever honestly reach it. But if I come anywhere near close to it, I know that I put the work in every single day. I personally can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and know whenever I am done with this and wrapped it up knowing that I put everything I had. Whatever that is, if it's awards, if it's Super Bowls, if it's not, I know for myself internally the work that I put in. I can be satisfied with that one day."