EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The surgery on New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley‘s right knee came on Friday, 40 days after it gave out while he was trying to break a tackle in a game against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 20. It was considered a success with the ACL being reconstructed and meniscus repaired.
It was the first step in a comeback Barkley hopes will get him back into the conversation surrounding the best running backs in football. And a comeback that perhaps can make him the next Adrian Peterson, in more ways than one.
A year ago, Barkley was mentioned alongside Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey as one of the NFL’s top running backs. Then a high ankle sprain hampered Barkley’s 2019 season before the knee injury took him out in Week 2 this season. Barkley totaled 1,037 rushing yards in 15 games over the past two seasons, and will spend Monday night recovering in Los Angeles while watching the Giants host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at MetLife Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Barkley was said to be in “good spirits” in the weeks leading up to the surgery, according to a source. He was seen in a maskless viral video with quarterback Daniel Jones and other teammates during a night out last week that earned the group some ridicule. At one point, the video showed Barkley riding a bicycle and doing what appeared to be wheelies on the street.
Barkley had been waiting for the swelling in his knee to go down, which is often the case when there is MCL damage. Then, the procedure was delayed until the World Series ended and Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the team physician for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Rams, was available to perform the surgery.
Even though Barkley is on injured reserve and his season is over, Giants coach Joe Judge has kept him around the team, in meeting rooms, and had him travel to Los Angeles and Philadelphia for road games.
“We count on those guys for leadership and being involved, and that was it right there,” Judge said recently of Barkley and then-injured safety Jabrill Peppers, both team captains.
Now, Barkley is ready to get to work on rehab. It will take time and effort. Sweat and pain. Nobody wants to put an exact time frame on it, but the recovery process from a torn ACL with accompanying MCL and meniscus damage is generally nine to 12 months.
He will have about 10½ months to get himself right for Week 1 of next season, so he shouldn’t rush his recovery. Knowing his tight relationship with Cleveland receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who also recently tore his ACL, expect the two to intertwine their rehab this offseason while they experience a similar process.
Barkley, 23, has something to prove as he will be entering the fourth year of his rookie deal. A lucrative new contract almost certainly awaits, but first he needs to prove he’s healthy, and as good as — or better than — his former self.
It’s possible, although there could be obstacles. Meniscus injuries complicate the rehab because repair or removal takes away some of the protective power for the knee. While ACL injuries aren’t the career-enders they were decades ago, a player’s effectiveness after returning can vary.
The good news for the Giants: Barkley isn’t just another running back. He is the generational talent with quads as wide as bookshelves who Giants general manager Dave Gettleman once said was “touched by the hand of God.”
“He is [an] Adrian Peterson-like [marvel],” one NFL general manager said of what he expects from Barkley’s comeback.
That’s especially valuable in this instance.
A ‘special case’
It has been almost nine years and there have been significant medical advancements since, but Peterson’s comeback from ACL surgery remains the gold standard. He had surgery in December 2011 and returned for the start of the following season in September.
Just 260 days removed from the injury, Peterson was playing, beginning perhaps the best season of his legendary career. He rushed for a career-best 2,097 yards that 2012 season and averaged 6.0 yards per carry for the Minnesota Vikings. Almost nine years later, he’s still playing at a reasonably high level for the Detroit Lions at the age of 35.
Peterson’s case is one for the books when it comes to ACL comebacks, even if he eventually needed a full meniscus repair in 2016.
“The special sauce was really two-fold. Some of it was luck and some of it was him. I think the luck part was that he didn’t really swell much,” said Kevin Wilk, the clinical director at Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham, Alabama.
Wilk was the physical therapist who worked with Peterson after his surgery.
“He didn’t have much post-operative pain,” Wilk said. “So that is probably a credit to Dr. [James] Andrews, to a degree, for doing a great surgery. [Peterson’s] knee wasn’t very swollen the next day. Some people, even great athletes, they’ll swell up and with swelling [it] is hard to get motion. It’s hard to get muscle back, they hurt more. He was the complete opposite.”
Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon, considers Peterson a “special case.” He still tries to explain to people, especially younger and amateur athletes, that Peterson is the exception, not the rule.
At the time, people questioned whether Peterson was returning to the field too soon.
“The worst thing I can do is to try and propagate somebody that has come back early to everyone else out there. Then I’m doing an injustice to them,” Andrews said. “They come back early like that, a lot of the average athletes, particularly the young ones, and they get hurt.”
But Peterson isn’t an average athlete. He rehabbed every day, sometimes twice a day, whether it was in Alabama, Minnesota or Houston. He set a goal of not just coming back, but coming back earlier and better than anyone expected.
Wilk even remembers needing to count Peterson’s reps during rehab because, if he didn’t, the All-Pro running back would go all day. Wilk would tell him to do three sets of 10 on straight leg raises. After attending to another patient, he would return and Peterson would still be going.
“How many you got?” Wilk would ask.
“I don’t know,” Peterson would respond.
Wilk estimated it was probably a couple hundred by that point.
“Yeah, that is OK,” Peterson said. “I can keep going.”
That might sound familiar to those close to Barkley, who was a legendary worker in the weight room at Penn State, dominating the school’s record board for leg exercises. He’s a notoriously fierce competitor, whether it be at pingpong or Connect 4.
So there is no one more appropriate for Barkley to get advice from on coming back from ACL surgery than Peterson. Especially considering the source knows the demands of the position.
Peterson told ESPN he spoke to Barkley a few weeks after the injury.
“The advice I’d give anyone coming back from an injury is kind of wrapping your mind around the situation for what it is,” Peterson said late last week. “Just kind of accepting it and focusing on the plan to get better, to come back and be better than you were before.
“A lot of it has to do with the mental aspect of it because it’s tough, you’re out, you’re not able to do what you were planning on doing. What you had worked so hard during the offseason during training time to do, now you’re watching.”
Peterson recommended Barkley write down the things he wants to accomplish and go after them. Hard.
That should be easy for Barkley, who has never been shy about saying what he wants to accomplish: “Be the best player to ever play this game.”
That is still the goal even as he rehabs after a major injury.