Monday night, the Birds try again.
Monday night will mark the first time Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders and New York Giants counterpart Saquon Barkley will be on the same field wearing different uniforms.
It will not be their first competition against each other, however.
That process started more than three years ago, from the time Sanders first arrived at Penn State in 2016, thinking he might get to share the running workload with Barkley, the former Whitehall High star. But by then Barkley already was so special for the Nittany Lions that they couldn’t afford to take him off the field.
Other than special teams work, Sanders would have to wait his turn or transfer out. He chose the former, beginning a friendly rivalry that will last the rest of their lives and on Monday night be featured under the spotlight of national television.
Sanders this year followed Barkley into the NFL and Monday night likely will be the featured back for the Eagles when they host the Giants and Barkley, who was the league’s offensive rookie of the year after leading it in yards from scrimmage in 2018.
Now they both get their turn at the same time as the Eagles (5-7) attempt to maintain control of the NFC East despite trailing the Dallas Cowboys (6-7) in the standings. The Giants (2-10) will miss the playoffs for a third straight year.
Because lead back Jordan Howard (119 carries, 525 yards) is likely to miss another game with a stinger, Sanders (116 carries, 520 yards) almost certainly will catch and surpass him to become the Eagles’ leading rusher. He might even catch and surpass Barkley, who has compiled only 544 yards after missing three games with an injury.
Incredibly, Sanders (4.5 yards per carry) is having a more efficient year than Barkley (4.0), thanks largely to running behind a superior offensive line.
Getting the win will be Sanders’ only concern.
“I’d be pretty selfish saying I’m focused on Saquon,” Sanders said. “I’m focused on getting this ‘W’ because we have some stuff to handle. We have a future ahead of us, just depending on what we do these last four weeks. So we have to handle business. It’s going to be fun.”
That’s not to say these players are not part of a mutual admiration society. Each follows the other closely.
Regardless of how their careers play out, that will be a constant.
“I talked to him earlier this week, FaceTime, and I’ve talked to him a good amount this season, even last year when he was in college still,” Barkley said Thursday.
“He’s a heck of a football player. You could see him coming more into himself and more into a role where he eventually probably will take off and be the guy in the future.
“But he’s catching the ball a lot better — not a lot better than he did in college (because) I don’t think he was presented with that responsibility like he has been in the NFL so far. But great vision, very strong, he has impressive legs. I know people talk about my legs all the time, but he has impressive legs and he’s fast. You’ve seen that 60-yard touchdown against the Bills.
“But I’m more just happy because I know the work he put in to get to where he’s at, and that’s what you dream about, being in the NFL. I’m happy to see a guy that I trained and practiced with do it at a high level.”
Just having Sanders right behind him on Penn State’s depth chart made Barkley a better player, the Giants back believes.
Before the Nebraska game in his final season, Barkley pushed through a back injury to play in the game because of the threat Sanders presented.
“I remember thinking, `I can’t not play, because if I don’t play, the world is going to see what this guy can do already, and it’s not my time to leave,’” Barkley said. “I kind of didn’t force myself, but that was in the back of my mind, get back early to finish off the season strong and let him go do his thing next year.”
Sanders had been preparing to start all week but didn’t tell his family “because you never know, that’s Superman over there.”
Sanders’ instincts were on the money.
“He gets the start and he takes one 60 yards,” Sanders said. “I’m like, `Yeah his back’s fine.’ “
Just because Barkley never allowed Sanders to take his job in Happy Valley, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t rooting for him.
“Even though there was always that competition to be that starting back, it was always out of love,” Barkley said. “And just that respect we had for each other’s talent is what made that friendship grow even stronger.”
Friends and rivals for life.
Sounds like an exciting stage has been set.