As important as any figurehead in any backfield around football, Antonio Gibson’s presence in the nation’s capital is two-fold with the offensive success Washington eyes moving into Week 2.
A ball-carrier with the ability to create as a three-down workhorse or as a change of pace receiver in open space, Gibson’s rookie season showed the flash offensive coordinator Scott Turner needed to denote an uptick in Gibson’s workload coming into the fall. After just one game, it’s evident Gibson will provide the fuse to spark the burgundy and gold offense as the weeks go on. A favorite for one of the NFL’s breakout stars of the season, the former Memphis standout totaled 23 total touches, amassing 108 yards from scrimmage in Washington’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in its home opener.
The former coordinator of Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, Turner’s early and often usage of Gibson has offered a potential mirror to McCaffrey’s workload in Washington. Against Los Angeles, Gibson accumulated roughly 87% of the team’s rushes, along with a 23.8% target share through the air. Compared to last fall—when healthy—Gibson’s totals have skyrocketed from 60.7% of Washington’s carries, earning just 10.2% of the target share. Losing starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick hurt, but as it’s been in Washington for nearly three decades, it’s next man up under center, and that comes in the form of Taylor Heinicke.
Alongside Gibson, Heinicke offers an entirely different, but exciting skill set to complement not just Gibson himself, but Terry McLaurin, Logan Thomas, and the rest of the Washington offense. A dual-threat gun-slinger with an innate ability to create outside the pocket with his legs, this is Heinicke’s second chapter to his herculean story that began last winter. By nearly defeating the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, many—including myself—called for Heinicke’s hand under center to start the year.
Moving forward, with Gibson healthy—he wasn't himself during the wild-card game—and Heinicke now ahold of the offensive reins, the duo has the opportunity to present an awfully intriguing 1-2 punch in D.C.’s backfield moving forward. The last time Washington graced a bell-cow back with a quarterback able to move the pocket and dance in the backfield came via the tandem of Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris nearly a decade ago. While their success together was short-lived due to obvious circumstances, it’s difficult not to project similar success for the duo of Gibson and Heinicke.
A stoutly built 6-foot-2 and a tick over 220 pounds, Gibson is molded in the frame of modern NFL back with a combination of size, speed, and versatility paramount to three-down success. Whether Turner schemes touches for Gibson primarily via the run, or through the air, his availability has become crucially important to the consistency and ability of Washington to put points on the board as they search for their second consecutive division crown.
In 14 games last season, Gibson totaled 795 yards rushing, adding another 247 in the pass game with 11 touchdowns, second-most for a rookie ball-carrier in Washington franchise history behind Morris. Eleven scores in 14 matchups showed ideal consistency and production, a trend head coach Ron Rivera hopes continues in Gibson’s sophomore season.
“The expectation for him is to take another big step,” Rivera said. “I like the way [Gibson] runs the ball...good body lean, deceptive speed and burst and he's got good vision… I like what the young man can be for us.”