Darkwa had a breakthrough game in Week 7 of the 2015 season against the Dallas Cowboys, with eight carries for 48 yards and a touchdown. From there he reverted to the witness protection program. There was only one other game that season in which he received more than six rushing attempts.
Darkwa then played well in Weeks 3 and 4 last year when the Giants were short on healthy running backs. He was out of the rotation two weeks later, and slowed by a leg injury the remainder of the season.
Coaches’ decisions and injuries have made Darkwa a relative unknown and an afterthought in the Giants’ running back rotation the past few years despite a healthy 4.5 yards per carry average throughout his career.
Until now, when there is this: The player the Giants didn’t tender as an unrestricted free agent earlier this year because they didn’t want to guarantee him $1.797 million had a career-high 21 carries for 117 yards Sunday night against the league’s No. 1 rushing defense. He’s third in the NFL (behind Baltimore’s Alex Collins and Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt), averaging 5.69 yards per carry for a team that hasn’t run the ball well most of the year.
This time it’s undeniable. The Giants can’t possibly rob Darkwa of the opportunity to be their primary ball carrier for the near future, beginning this Sunday when they host the Seattle Seahawks. How could coach Ben McAdoo look his locker room in the face if somehow Darkwa reverted to a reserve role? He’s been too productive and effective in comparison to his competition.
Rookie Wayne Gallman is second among the backs at 4.1 yards per carry, more than 1.5 yards less than Darkwa.
“I feel [Darkwa’s] a very natural runner and he’s been taking advantage of his opportunities this year,” McAdoo said on his Monday conference call.
Darkwa’s game isn’t flashy. He’s not going to break ankles or outrun the fastest of cornerbacks to the end zone. His 47-yard run early in the second quarter Sunday against the Broncos was the longest of his career. Darkwa’s a hard, one-cut runner who has a knack for finding holes quickly and making yards. Behind this Giants offensive line, it appears to be a quality fit.
Darkwa and Gallman have been the primary ball carriers the past two weeks with Paul Perkins dealing with a rib injury. Shane Vereen has remained in his role as the passing-down back, which isn't likely to change despite the Giants becoming a more run-heavy offense without several of their top wide receivers.
With Perkins struggling this year when healthy and Gallman still prone to rookie mistakes (fumbling and botching an exchange with quarterback Eli Manning in three career games), it makes too much sense for Darkwa to be the Giants' current No. 1 option. Gallman and/or Perkins may ultimately be their future, but Darkwa is the present. He’s earned the opportunity to carry a heavier load, which he did on Sunday night in a stunning 23-10 win over the Broncos. He'll continue to get carries in the Giants' altered offense.
“It has been a long time coming for me,” Darkwa said. “This is my fourth year and to have that opportunity to kind of, I wouldn’t say put the team on my back per se, but when it’s time to close it out, they want to go to me. That is a blessing in itself, especially on this stage.”
This likely isn’t what the Giants were expecting at the start of the season. They didn’t tender Darkwa a contract earlier this year as an unrestricted free agent. Concerned about his health (he dealt with a fractured leg each of the past two years) they offered him a smaller deal with a chance to reach $1.797 million based on incentives.
Then they handed the starting job to Perkins, drafted Gallman and signed veteran running back Shaun Draughn (since cut) in between. Darkwa seemed destined for a reserve role that included being a solid special-teamer.
That has changed with his recent success. Now he’s destined for a bigger role as the primary ball carrier on a team that was forced by injuries to become a run-first offense. Manning's 19 pass attempts Sunday night were the fewest since McAdoo arrived in 2014.
It hasn’t changed anything for Darkwa, an undrafted free agent from Tulane who was claimed by the Giants off the Miami Dolphins' practice squad during his rookie season.
“I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I feel like I can be that guy. That’s not going anywhere. It doesn’t matter this game; rush for 200 yards next game. It’s not going anywhere.
“So I’m always going to have that chip on my shoulder.”
Even as the Giants' primary ball carrier on Sunday against the Seahawks and beyond.