EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When the Giants passed on a quarterback of the future and drafted Saquon Barkley, they were sure he was exactly what Eli Manning needed. They thought he'd be the weapon that could revive their offense. They imagined him adding years to Manning's career.
It took 10 games into this lost season, but now everyone can really see why.
The 21-year-old Barkley was the best thing about the Giants in Sunday's 38-35 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, rushing for a career-high 142 yards and scoring three touchdowns. But it's what his presence did for the offense and for Manning in particular that made this game so impressive. He was so effective right from the beginning, and the Giants stuck with him for so long (27 carries) that it opened up everything else for the Giants.
That allowed Manning to use the play-action game to perfection and complete a ridiculous 17 of 18 passes as the Giants scored their most points in a game in the last three years.
Yes, it was against a bad and banged-up Buccaneers defense. But it was still a reminder of what the Giants could have been -- and maybe should have been -- doing all along.
"Early in the game, we called runs where, I think I mentioned during the week those dirty, 5-yard runs where it's grimy and tough and just hit it up in there," Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. "And he embraced that part of it. I think by doing that early in the game, it really helped him."
"It sets up everything," Manning added. "It helps the offense get going. You can run the ball and be physical. They can have that push and it should help you get into third and manageable situations. Instead of getting two yards or three yards, you are getting those extra yards running hard and not bouncing around. Eventually, it'll break. He is a big man. Those guys get tired of taking him on."
There's no doubt that's what happened on Sunday. The more Barkley ran, the more effective he was, the more the defense had to cheat to help try and stop him. When that happened, it left more receivers open all over the field. And when Manning broke out the play-action, things became even easier.
That trap started early. The Giants opened with three straight Barkley runs. The fourth play, Manning got the Bucs to bite on the play-action and he hit Odell Beckham Jr. 41 yards down field. Two plays later, he ran the play-action again and the Bucs were so lost, Barkley ended up wide open for a touchdown.
That's the kind of weapon he is. He's a matchup nightmare. And when he's on like he was on Sunday, a defense can get confused trying to figure out exactly what to do.
Obviously, plenty of credit goes to the Giants' offensive line, which has looked completely different over the last two games. Manning had time to work. Barkley had holes to run through. And as Barkley took advantage, the offense could feel it.
"It puts a charge in everybody when you feel his energy," new Giants guard Jamon Brown said. "The confidence goes through the roof."
What's most amazing about that is that the Giants didn't really use Barkley as much as they could have. He was only targeted three times and caught two passes for 10 yards. It was ironic, really, that Manning's lone incompletion was a pass where Barkley was wide open on a wheel route. Manning threw the ball just behind him; otherwise, Barkley would've added a 37-yard touchdown catch to his day.
That's the way it was all supposed to work. That's what the Giants envisioned all along: a dynamic young running back creating plays everywhere, a savvy veteran quarterback working with the pressure off his back and a top-tier receiver like Beckham taking advantage of the defense having its eyes on someone else.
"When we get the run game going, everything else kind of clicks," Barkley said. "We got them to commit more to the run so we could take some deep shots and take shots down the field. It also keeps the clock and the chains moving."
It hasn't worked that way, of course. The offensive line made things too hard on Barkley and Manning for most of this season. Barkley became more of a crutch than an engine that makes the offense go. But for one wonderful afternoon, the Giants finally saw their whole plan in action. Maybe it's a glimpse of the future. Maybe it's just a bitter taste of what they've been missing.
Whatever it is, it's a reminder of why Barkley is here and how good the Giants potentially could be with him leading the way.