Thursday night was a New York Giants preseason game at MetLife Stadium, not a playoff game. But you wouldn’t have known the difference if you’d walked in right in the middle of Saquon Barkley’s’ first career NFL carry, on the first play from scrimmage of a new season defined by hope.
Barkley, GM Dave Gettleman’s No. 2 overall pick from April’s draft, dodged right behind a block by tight end Evan Engram, burst to his left upfield through a hole, making two Cleveland Browns defenders miss in the process, and was off to the races toward the right sideline for a 39-yard gain before being pushed out by Browns safety Damarious Randall.
The Penn State running back finished with 43 yards on five carries in a 20-10 loss to the Browns.
It was bedlam in East Rutherford, N.J. Fans shown on the Jumbotron were delirious. Their 3-13 season of 2017 was officially gone. Barkley, and the promise of a better 2018, was finally here — and had arrived.
It was, frankly, louder inside the partially-filled stadium than it had been most of last year’s dismal season.
Barkley only played a handful of series, and Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t play at all. But this was what the Giants fans came to see, right? A reason to believe again. And Barkley had given it to them, right off the bat.
Reality, of course, always sets in, though, and the Giants also learned that this isn’t going to be easy and that the Cleveland Browns have some promising young players of their own.
Browns tight end David Njoku, of Cedar Grove, N.J., (picked six slots behind the Giants’Evan Engram in 2017) killed James Bettcher’s new defense with two first-half touchdown catches — one against starting linebacker Alec Ogletree thrown by starting QB Tyrod Taylor, and a second against corner Leonard Johnson thrown by the only player selected higher this year than Barkley: No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield.
Third-year Browns receiver Rashard Higgins had his way early, too, beating both Eli Apple and Chris Lewis-Harris.
The Giants, of course, were epically bad against tight ends last season, and despite revamping their linebacking corps and adjusting their secondary, it was more of the same at least for one game.
If Barkley was promising, though, so indeed was Mayfield, who handled pressure confidently, stepped forward in the pocket when necessary, moved with poise, and completed smart throws for much of his early few series.
Replacing Taylor late in the first quarter, Mayfield hit 11 of 20 passes for 212 yards, two touchdowns, and converted two fourth-down plays with his feet. The Heisman Trophy winner found Njoku on a 10-yard TD pass to cap a 14-play, 72-yard drive on his second series. He finished his debut with a completion on a 54-yard slant and run to fellow rookie Antonio Callaway.
Giants second-string QB Davis Webb, on the other hand, sailed a few throws early, including an overthrow of Russell Shepard that could have gone for a touchdown. And Webb also forced a dangerous throw into traffic that luckily fell incomplete.
It is only one game, but as exciting as Barkley was at the start, the Giants are going to want to see more than they did early Thursday out of Webb, if not for this season’s purposes than for 2019 and beyond, to feel validated in passing on quarterbacks early in this past 2018 draft.
That said, however, there was a palpable excitement in the stadium despite the Browns’ pair of halftime touchdowns, thanks to Barkley and his immediate delivery on Gettleman’s promise that the Giants are getting something special.
Every Giants fan in the building was cheering not just for Barkley, but because he or she can envision the day when both Barkley and Beckham will be on the field together. And then, maybe, just maybe, it won’t just have to sound like a playoff game for one play. Maybe Barkley will be the reason, they hope, that one day soon they’ll be in one again.
The troubled fourth-round pick played despite being cited for marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license. Police also found bullets and a gun part in his car this week. He had three catches for 87 yards, including a diving 24-yarder that the Browns successfully challenged after it was ruled incomplete on the field.
There were no demonstrations. Giants DE Olivier Vernon and S Michael Thomas, who both knelt during the anthem last season, each stood.
Browns: Host Buffalo Bills on Aug. 16.
Giants: At Detroit Lions on Aug. 16.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.