EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When the New York Giants (1-5) and Carolina Panthers (3-3) take the field at MetLife Stadium on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), running backs Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey will be parked on the sidelines. Over the past two seasons it has become an all-too-familiar position for these dynamic playmakers.
Barkley (ankle), the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, will be sidelined for the 16th time in the Giants’ past 21 games. McCaffrey (hamstring), the No. 8 overall pick in 2017, is on injured reserve and will miss his fourth straight contest, the 17th time in Carolina’s past 20 games he hasn’t been available.
Such is life as an NFL running back. It’s a dangerous occupation, one reason it’s such a risky proposition for a team to build its offense around that position.
“My takeaway, I can only speak for us obviously, is I don’t think anybody — you look across the National Football League — is building it around one player,” second-year Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “I think if you do build around one player it has to be the quarterback. I think for us, having [QB] Sam [Darnold], a young player, having Christian who can take pressure off him both in the run and pass game helps your quarterback play at an elite level.”
The Panthers have Chuba Hubbard filling in for McCaffrey. The Giants are relying on Devontae Booker and fullback Eli Penny. They have all been relatively successful in replacement roles but are not dynamic like McCaffrey and Barkley — especially in the pass game.
Barkley has a 50-plus-yard touchdown reception in three of his four professional seasons. McCaffrey had 1,387 yards rushing and 1,005 yards receiving in 2019, making him one of three players in NFL history with at least 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. When these teams met in 2018, Barkley and McCaffrey combined for 41 touches and three TD receptions, including a 57-yarder by Barkley.
“Those two are very, very talented players. On the field, they bring a whole lot to a team,” Giants coach Joe Judge said. “Offensively, when you have players like that it helps your defense as well, because you’re normally moving the ball and even when you have to punt it, you’re going to be punting from better field position, which helps your defense play on a longer field.
“With both those guys, the threat [of] the run and the pass game is very, very real.”
When healthy, they get the ball often. McCaffrey led the NFL with 403 touches in 2019; Barkley ranked second with 352 his rookie year, which also happens to be the only season he hasn’t missed a game.
And that seems to be the problem with relying so heavily on a star running back. They touch the ball a lot, take a lot of hits and deal with a lot of wear and tear.
Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was Carolina’s GM when it selected McCaffrey in 2017, and he also selected Barkley the following year with New York. He shrugs at the idea that running backs face added risks, saying “stuff happens” this summer when discussing Barkley’s recovery from a season-ending torn ACL suffered in Week 2 last season.
“Really and truly I would not make a different decision today than I made in 2018,” Gettleman said in August of drafting Barkley. “Plain and simple.”
Gettleman made those remarks before Barkley started the season slowly (he has 325 yards from scrimmage and three TDs in five games) as he worked his way back from the knee injury, then sprained his ankle in Week 5. Given how this season has unfolded, maybe the GM’s perspective has changed.
Barkley’s ankle, injured when he stepped awkwardly on another player’s foot against Dallas, hasn’t healed as quickly as hoped. And McCaffrey unexpectedly landed on injured reserve after trying to return unsuccessfully last week.
The injuries make life more difficult for their respective offenses, which are significantly better with them in the lineup.
Barkley accounted for 36% of the Giants’ total yards in 2018, when they averaged 23.1 points per game, their most since 2015. It has been downhill for him and the offense since. McCaffrey produced 44% of the Panthers’ offense in 2019 before the injuries slowed him down.
“They do play a lot of plays. They do take a lot of hits,” Rhule said. “They also do touch the football a lot. If a receiver has eight catches, it’s a big day. If a tailback has eight touches, you’re upset.
“So I think having a great player at that position can really help you, but you must have a really well-rounded team and you can’t build anything around just one player.”
New York is 16-38 since drafting Barkley and Carolina is 31-39 since selecting McCaffrey. Both started their careers impressively, but their missed games have been hard for their teams to overcome.
It’s too simplistic to blame a team’s overall lack of success on one move, but investing premium picks in Barkley and McCaffrey hasn’t worked out to date, largely because of the biggest concern with building an offense around that position — injury.