EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was the most important game of the past six seasons for the New York Giants, and there was running back Saquon Barkley, jumping and windmilling his left arm to get the home crowd stoked for his quarterback during a Week 17 rout of the Indianapolis Colts.
Barkley was enjoying the moment as Daniel Jones was leaving the field to a standing ovation as the Giants clinched their first playoff bid since 2016.
Barkley was among the first to embrace the quarterback, one of his best friends on the team. They golf together and vacation together, most recently jetting to Miami for a quick getaway after the season.
Together, Barkley and Jones have been through the NFL's abyss during a string of dreadful seasons when there seemed to be little hope for the floundering franchise. Now, what they had talked about and envisioned so many times during those years was becoming a reality. They finally were on the right side of things in that playoff-clinching win.
"I told him, 'I love you,'" Barkley said of his on-field embrace with Jones, the emotion overflowing because all the years of hard work were paying off.
The Giants made the playoffs with a 9-7-1 record and won a playoff game in Minnesota, but they were bounced in the divisional round by the Philadelphia Eagles. It left unfinished business for Jones and Barkley that might never come to fruition, even though the Giants would prefer to re-sign their two best offensive players, who are also impending free agents.
Jones, once considered a turnover machine, had nine in 18 games this past season, including the playoffs. He also rushed for 708 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. He did everything the Giants asked of him in his first year working with coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka.
Barkley's 1,312 rushing yards ranked fourth in the league this season, behind only Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb. His nine carries of 20-plus yards were good for fifth. Barkley had his best season since his rookie year and was a finalist for Comeback Player of the Year.
The Giants have made their intentions clear when it comes to Jones' future.
"We're happy Daniel is going to be here," general manager Joe Schoen said at his season-ending news conference, perhaps letting his plan slip. "We're happy he's going to be here."
Barkley's future in New York is far less certain. It's a reflection of the positions they play. Over the past five seasons, 64% of the top 10 running backs (based on rushing yards) were on rookie contracts. A team can use the franchise tag on just one player, and if Jones does sign an extension, that leaves Barkley as the one most likely to get tagged.
And Barkley's injury history doesn't help. This marked the first season since his rookie year that he did not miss a game. From 2019 to 2021, Barkley missed a total of 20 games because of multiple ankle injuries and a torn ACL in his right knee suffered in 2020.
The Giants have two of the most notable free agents this offseason and one franchise tag available to ensure at least one stays.
BARKLEY HAS BEEN the face of the franchise since he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2018. Fans flock to Barkley at practices and personal appearances, and he's the team's most marketable player.
Despite the fact that he played a combined 15 games in 2020 and 2021, Barkley's jersey has been the team's top seller each of the past three years, according to global digital sports platform Fanatics, which also serves as the team's ecommerce partner. His sales in 2022 were up nearly double the previous year.
Former Giants quarterback Eli Manning understands the pressure of being in Barkley's position.
"People are listening to what you say, but they're also watching your actions and what you're doing and how you handle everything," Manning said prior to the Super Bowl. "It does come with a lot of responsibility. You want to make sure the guys you are rewarding can handle that."
But Barkley is not the franchise quarterback. Schoen noted the two sides were "not close" on a deal when they talked during the bye week in November. They've reengaged after the season, but not much seems to have changed.
The deal Barkley turned down during the bye week was for more than $12 million per year, according to league and team sources. That's solid running back money but not top of the market. San Francisco's Christian McCaffrey is currently the standard at $16 million per season.
Barkley, 26, has already made it clear he's not intent on "resetting" the running back market. The belief is if the two sides meet at $14 million per year, a deal could get done, a source close to the negotiations told ESPN recently.
Another problem for Barkley is that the franchise tag looms at $10.1 million for a running back.
That doesn't provide Barkley much leverage, especially if the Giants are able to get a Jones deal done first. It's less money than he was already offered and without the long-term security.
"If you ask anyone, they would prefer a long-term deal and not get tagged," Barkley told ESPN the day after the Giants' season ended. "But, sadly, that is part of our business. That is something they can do."
The window for teams to use the franchise tag is from Feb. 21 to March 7. The clock is ticking.
Owner John Mara is heavily involved in the day-to-day activity of the team and understands Barkley's value. Barkley's personal team, especially his business manager, is also close with co-owner Steve Tisch.
"I'm certainly conscious of [Barkley's star power], but I don't think it's a major factor [in personnel decisions]," Mara told ESPN last year after Barkley's name was bandied about publicly as a possible trade target. "At the end of the day, put the best possible team on the field and build for the future.
"Listen, I like him. He's been a great representative for us."
It's something Barkley's team undoubtedly will use in their negotiations.
"Absolutely, I would [use it in negotiations]," said former Giants running back Tiki Barber, the team's most recognizable offensive player in the early 2000s. "In fact, it was an argument when my agent used to negotiate with [former Giants GM] Ernie Accorsi: 'Who are people coming to watch when the Giants have the football? They're coming to watch Tiki.'
"You have to use it. Whether it works or not is another thing."
THE GIANTS WOULD like to get a long-term deal done with their quarterback, but the franchise tag at $32.4 million is the backup option, in part because they don't want that full amount counting against the salary cap and affecting their ability to supply him with better playmakers.
Having the franchise tag available for Barkley in the event the two sides don't reach an agreement remains the preferred option. The Giants' roster isn't in position to allow their best playmaker to walk without immediate compensation.
The expectation is Jones' new contract will come in at over $35 million per season, according to multiple sources in and around the team and the quarterback. Anything slightly over $35 million per season would rank Jones' contract ninth among all quarterbacks. By the time next season comes around, however, Jones will likely be closer to the top 15, assuming Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts and Joe Burrow -- and Lamar Jackson, if he doesn't get tagged -- get new deals.
"I was proud of Daniel, the way he played, to learn another offense and pick it up," Manning said. "Just the way he played in the fourth quarter of a number of games and leading the team back to victory, which was awesome; that's what you want from your quarterback. To do it so quickly with the brand-new offense, the way they were able to compete, make it to the playoffs, win a playoff game, that is awesome.
"I hope he gets rewarded for that. I hope he is the quarterback for the Giants for a long time."
So does Barkley.
That feeling they experienced in that rout of the Colts (and again two weeks later in the wild-card round in Minnesota) was the first taste of team success Barkley and Jones have had in their NFL careers. They had never had a winning record professionally at any point prior to this season.
Jones called this year's team a "special group." He wants to run it back with the player he called the best running back in the league. So too does most of the locker room.
"He is the leader," veteran wide receiver Sterling Shepard said of Barkley last month. "It's different. His confidence level is through the roof. He's a guy who is going to lead by example and is vocal.
"Everyone has their own ways of leading. Him making those plays [this season] gave him that confidence again."
Barkley's teammates seem to think the Giants will reward their star running back. It would be something the Giants have to massage delicately if they were to reconvene in April without him.
"It does matter," Barber said. "That locker room is young. If Saquon is their leader as people say he is, and that they look to for guidance, and now all of a sudden you don't pay him, it creates a void."
The Giants also must decide how important it is to keep this core together. How far can they get by adding key pieces to the offensive line and at wide receiver?
That will determine whether this season was the pinnacle and endpoint for the Barkley-and-Jones Giants.
"He's the best running back in the league, and I think he proved that this year to everyone," Jones said. "He showed what he's capable of doing as a playmaker as a dynamic part of this offense.
"I'm happy for him. I think he deserves everything that's ahead of him."
Jones was doing his best to express how important Barkley is to the success of the Giants. It was his way of jumping up and down and windmilling his arm to support his friend and teammate. But the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and that might ultimately decide which Giants star gets paid.