In his sophomore season of high school, Saquon Barkley didn’t think he was good enough to be a college football player. In his junior season in college, Saquon Barkley has a guaranteed shot at a top 10 draft position, and could go as high as No. 2.
Saquon Barkley spent the latter part of his high school years trying to improve his game in any way he could. Barkley has spent every waking moment of his college career proving that the 23 players ranked ahead of him out of high school were, in fact, not better than him. Barkley, ever since he stepped foot on campus, has been doing nothing but showing why he’s a talent that only comes around once in a lifetime. He has nothing left to prove to any of us.
But you see, that right there is the problem. Barkley isn’t proving anything to any of us. Barkley is proving everything to himself. Saquon has been a competitor from day one; the accolades mean nothing to him if he isn’t improving each and every day. This is why he breaks linemen’s record in the weight room. This is why he, inexplicably, improves on a 40 time that’s already blindingly fast for a person his weight. Compounding this is a three-week stretch that saw Barkley put up less than stellar numbers, and you have a combination of drive and frustration that would make it nearly impossible for the running back to sit any game where he can prove to himself, not everyone else, that he is indeed as good as everyone else, not he, thinks he is.
Barkley is also the true definition of a team player. He knows he will get his paycheck regardless. A potential injury may make that check last one lifetime instead of two, but he knows he’s getting it regardless. What Barkley won’t get, however, is another chance to walk on the field with this group of players again. He wouldn’t miss the opportunity for any amount of money, not after what every player in that locker room has been through. Through his actions, Barkley has showed time and time again that his character is more important than any amount of money the NFL could give him. And his character has led him to always being there for his teammates, regardless of situation. He said so himself: as long as he’s healthy, he’s sharing that last moment with his teammates.
The logic behind Barkley sitting out the bowl game is sound, don’t get me wrong. It’s because Barkley is a generational talent that he should conserve his body for a future NFL career. An injury could happen at any moment, and it would be tragic to see someone with so much potential derail his career with an unnecessary injury. Herein lies the second problem, though. An injury could happen at any minute —against Maryland, in the Combine, in the preseason, in his first NFL game, in his 200th NFL game after 10 years, you name it. We don’t know when that injury, knock on wood, can happen. To say that Barkley should sit this game out or that game out is an exercise in futility, because the reality of the matter is we don’t really know if, or when, a potential derailing injury might happen.
Another reality is that games have been meaningless since November 1st. The minute Michigan State put the ball through the uprights, we’ve known that Penn State had no shot at a Big Ten championship and playoff spot. There has been no point in Barkley playing a down of football since that game. Yet, the argument that he should sit the last three games of the season didn’t really pick up any traction. Those games, against the weakest competition in the conference slate, were meaningless too. If he needs to conserve his body when it comes to the bowl game, I’d assume that, logically, he’d still need to conserve his body as it pertains to these three meaningless games (no disrespect to Rutgers, Nebraska, or Maryland).
Lastly, for every Jake Butt or Jaylon Smith, who were injured in their bowl game, there is a Myles Garrett, Mitchell Trubisky, or Jared Goff, who played in their bowl games and didn’t get injured. For every Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette, whose injury past led them to sit out their bowl games to avoid further injury, there is a Sam Bradford or Toby Gerhart, whose injury history didn’t affect their draft prospects as negatively as one would expect (in Bradford’s case, he was picked No. 1 in the 2010 NFL Draft even after a season-ending shoulder re-injury). When an injury happens does matter, I will readily admit, but the risk of injury, in a game that sees them with certain regularity, is always there regardless of circumstance.
Saquon Barkley has already done more for Penn State than anyone could ask for; he doesn’t owe anybody anything. He has earned the right to do whatever he wants. And what he wants is to share one last moment with his teammates. We don’t get to tell him what to do.