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The Evolution Of Antonio Gibson
Gibson only had 33 carries in his two-year stint at Memphis when Washington drafted him. Over the course of Gibson's rookie season, the team transformed him into an efficient running back.
By Zach Selby Apr 05, 2021

It was Antonio Gibson's first Thanksgiving game in the NFL when the Washington Football Team traveled to Arlington, Texas, to play the Dallas Cowboys, and the nation was getting a crash course in what the rookie running back could do.

Gibson's breakout game in front of thousands of fans at AT&T Stadium and millions more watching at home was a clear statement. He amassed 115 yards on 20 carries and scored three touchdowns, including when he broke loose down the left sideline in the fourth quarter for a 23-yard touchdown, waving to safety Donovan Wilson before crossing the goal line. By the time Washington walked away with a blowout win, no one could deny that Gibson has a bright future in this league.

"It's the story of my life. Every time the spotlight comes on, it seems like God is always [looking] down on me," Gibson said after the game. "To be able to come out on national TV and do this is an amazing feeling."

The NFL was witnessing a mere snapshot of Gibson development, as the steps Washington took to mold the former Memphis Tiger into a versatile, capable running back could be traced back months. He had mostly played receiver in college, so he first had to learn the basics of the position. After that, it was a matter of putting the concepts and techniques -- which, by the way, had to be learned in a virtual offseason -- to proper use on the field.

Running backs coach Randy Jordan referred to Gibson and his potential as "clay" during training camp, and if that's the case, his finished product is at least taking shape and solidifying in the furnace after an impressive rookie season with 795 rushing yards and 247 receiving yards along with 11 rushing scores. Had Gibson not been forced to miss two games with a turf toe injury, he may have become Washington's first 1,000-yard rusher since Adrian Peterson in 2018.

Like a lot of young players, Gibson is in the middle of a metamorphosis. He is no longer the player he was at Memphis, but he has not yet become the one he will be in the future. Instead, he is transforming in a cocoon made of his own ability and evolving into what is hopefully the franchise's long-term answer at running back.

"The thing about him is he's got so much potential and ability," head coach Ron Rivera said of Gibson after the Cowboys game. "He's a lot of fun to watch. I'm pretty excited about who he's developing into."


Gibson was all smiles on Day 2 of the 2020 NFL Draft. Washington had just used its third-round pick to select him No. 66 overall, making his dream of being a professional football player a reality.

"I feel good, man," Gibson said after being drafted. "I've been waiting on this all my life."

Gibson knows his final season at Memphis was by far his most productive with 1,203 total yards from scrimmage, compared to just 99 the year before, and had 12 total touchdowns on 71 touches.

But the versatility he displayed was hard to ignore. A bevy of injuries on Memphis' offense essentially forced then head coach Mike Norvell and the Tigers to milk all of Gibson's skillset for its worth, and that  bore some bountiful results. He was even a threat on special teams with 645 return yards and a touchdown.

It took a season for Gibson to get acclimated to the quicker pace of Division I football after playing at Eastern Central Community College, but once he did, Norvell had a player who was "special in every aspect."

"He's one of the toughest people I've ever been around to tackle," Norvell said on NBC Sports Washington’s Washington Football Talk podcast. "He had so many yards after contact, which really contributed to a lot of those explosive plays that we saw. There's no question that he was one of the playmakers, which led to a lot of our success."

That explosiveness is part of what caught Washington's attention. His ability to create mismatches at any spot on the field, along with his background at receiver and running back, made him an ideal fit for offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s Air Coryell system that relied on position flexibility. He even reminded Rivera of Christian McCaffrey, who had just become the third player in NFL history to finish a season with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.

"He's a little bit bigger than Christian, but he's got a skillset like Christian," Rivera said. "This is a very versatile, young football player that we really think is going to be a guy that can get on the field for us early and contribute."

Washington drafted Gibson with the hopes he would develop into a multi-faceted running back. The talent was there, but he only had 33 rushes in two seasons at Memphis. 

Whatever Washington intended to do with Gibson did not matter to him; all he wanted to do was contribute. When asked by the media how he wanted to be identified, Gibson replied, "I view myself as a weapon."

"I've been playing running back and receiver my whole life. But not just that, I've been playing all over the ball. Offense is something that I'm very talented at. It's always been like that since a young age, and I feel like I can dominate wherever they put me."

Norvell knew Gibson would succeed wherever he played.  He had seen Gibson break a school record with 386 all-purpose yards against SMU and make one of the biggest plays in school history against Navy. The possibilities were endless for a player like that, he said, and one of Gibson's strongest assets is his work ethic. He knew Gibson would accomplish any goal Washington put in front of him.

"He's going to have an extremely long NFL career," Norvell said, "I'm excited that he is coming into a system where it's not necessarily all thrown on him to learn in every aspect of what he's doing. He's going to come in and they're going to be able to formulate a role for him."


Rookie seasons are hard enough in the NFL, especially for a player getting acclimated to a new position. Add the wrinkles of a virtual offseason and a shortened training camp, and that made for an even more difficult challenge.

Gibson would be used as a running back for the most part, but because of his background, he also spent time with the receivers. Rivera and the rest of the coaches did not want to just dump the entire volume of information from both positions, so they gave him more specific areas to work on.

There were moments when he confused the responsibilities of the receivers with those of the running back. But Jordan could tell Gibson was dialed in on whatever role he was learning, and that gave him confidence.

"I feel like football is football at the end of the day," Gibson said. "You always go to the next level and things have to be more detailed because everybody's quicker, everybody's faster. So, you have to be sharper on those things and that's what I needed to pick up on."

Gibson felt like all he needed was more reps to get a stronger hold on the system, and he started to get more action as camp continued, even spending some time with the starting offense. With that increase in usage, his teammates started to appreciate his skillset even more.

"Being around him, you see him at the running back position and it looks like it's natural for him as well," said former Washington running back Adrian Peterson. "He's a big body, big lower body, thick thighs, he's a big body guy. …So, to be so big and athletic and have great hands, it's going to be exciting to see what he'll be able to do for us within this offense."

What was more impressive was how quickly he was picking up the offense. Rivera knew he was a bright player, but his teammates like Kyle Allen, who had played in the system before, were impressed by his progress. That helped Gibson start to play faster and utilize the speed and quickness that helped convince Washington to draft him.

"Everybody has their mistakes," Gibson said, "but just learning from that and being able to correct it the next time and going out there and responding -- which the game is about -- shows me that I can do it."

Under normal circumstances, Gibson would have had rookie minicamps and preseason games to show what he was truly capable of. But with the regular season drawing closer, Washington would have to settle for what it had seen from Gibson. Luckily, it did not take long to see that he was ready.

"You throw me in there," Gibson said, "and I'm going to get it done."


Gibson was staring at an open field in the second quarter of Washington's season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. After his first two carries resulted in -1 yards, he was starting to find holes in the Eagles' defense.

Washington was trailing, 17-0, and the only thing that stood in the way of Gibson giving his team its first points of the game was working around a block from Terry McLaurin. Instead, he tripped himself up as he was trying to cut.

It was a 20-yard gain, but it could have been a lot more.

"You can blame that on me," Gibson said the Thursday after the game. "I should have kept that one straight inside. I was doing too much indecisiveness trying to set him up to go inside to outside."

Gibson led the team in rushing yards during Washington's 27-17 win over the Eagles, but it was clear he was still experiencing growing pains. Turner said he was still learning when to "stick your foot in the ground and cut back. He's learning how to set a block; he's learning how to show some patience," and that was evident on plays like his 20-yard run.

There were plenty of positives, though; Jordan could tell Gibson was using all the things he had learned in the offseason. He had good vision, and he was working on fixing the areas that his coaches wanted him to improve upon. The only thing Gibson needed was time, according to Jordan and Turner.

"The biggest thing is to make plays," Jordan said. "That's all I'm looking for. It could be four-minute running the clock out, it could be catching a screen, whatever it may be. The only thing I want them to be able to do is make plays for the team. I think down the stretch he'll be able to do that as we continue throughout the season."

Week by week, that prediction became reality. Gibson scored his first-career touchdown the following week in Arizona, then rushed for another score against the Cleveland Browns and totaled 128 total yards  versus the Baltimore Ravens. He only 186 rushing yards by October, but he was averaging 4.6 yards per carry and had found the end zone three times.

"I feel like each week I'm learning," Gibson said after the Ravens game. "I feel like every play, I always come back and critique myself. As the season goes on, I am going to continue to learn and put it out there on the field."

There were moments when Rivera could tell that Gibson was close to having a breakout game. Against the Ravens, Washington used him more as a receiver, and he found plenty of open lanes on screen passes. Nearly half of his 82 yards on four catches came on a 40-yard sprint down to the 11-yard line. Gibson went on to score a two-yard touchdown four plays later.

But none of these performances, which included just 57 combined rushing yards against the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, compared to what Gibson accomplished in his first-ever matchup against the rival Cowboys.

It was apparent from Washington's opening drive that Gibson was playing at a different level. He exploded down the right sideline for a 40-yard gain that put the offense at the five-yard line. He found the end zone later in the first quarter by slipping through blocks from Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff for a 12-yard score -- his fourth of the season.

Even on plays that did not reach the second level, Gibson was showing how far he had come in seven weeks. He was following his blockers, bouncing off defenders and running between the tackles. By the end of Washington's 25-3 win, Gibson amassed 128 yards on 20 carries while averaging 6.4 yards per attempt.

"The more reps he gets, the more he sees things better, the more confident cuts he makes, and he's just improving every week," Allen said.

Gibson's production dipped to 20 yards against the Giants after the bye week, but it started to grow once again from there. First, it was 45 rushing yards against the Detroit Lions, followed by 94 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals. It culminated with Gibson's Thanksgiving performance that included 115 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He was the first rookie to record three scores on Thanksgiving since Randy Moss.

Gibson's final carry of the game was a 37-yard romp to the end zone, the latest example of the growth the young running back had experienced in his rookie season. Unlike the play against the Eagles in Week 1 when he tripped, there was no indecisiveness to the way he ran. He took the handoff, sprinted straight up the middle and did not stop running until he crossed the goal line.

"He's got the skillset that really hasn't been developed," Rivera said. "As you watch him and watch what Randy and Coach [Jennifer] King have done with him, you feel really good about that. You know that, especially with the coaching he's gotten, he's starting to show the signs of development and growth that we've been looking for."

The Future

The end of Gibson's 2020 season went slightly off course in Week 13; he suffered a turf toe injury that kept him sidelined for the next two games, and he could not find the end zone in Weeks 16 or 17. He capped his rookie campaign by rushing 14 times for 31 yards in the Wild Card round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Still, what he accomplished in 14 regular season games is worth recognizing. Gibson compiled 795 yards while averaging 4.7 yards per carry; he caught 36 passes for 247 yards, which pushed him over 1,000 total yards of offense; he came close to tying Alfred Morris' rookie touchdown record with 11 scores; and he finished the year as one of the NFL's most efficient running backs.

As Gibson said during his exit interview, "it went very well for somebody who only had 33 carries in college."

"I improved every week. I took the coaching in, week in and week out. I still wasn't the best; I still have a lot to improve on, which I'm sure everybody can see, but for the first year, I think I did pretty well."

Gibson did not brag about himself at the end of the season. He credited much of his success to his offensive line and the coaches for working with him as he learned the position. However, that does not change the fact that he made an impression in his first season. He took on the challenge of learning a new position, carved out a role on Washington's offense and proved he can be an effective player at the professional level.

So what is the next step for Gibson? For starters, he's trying to get as fit as possible during the offseason and work on his explosiveness. Considering teams are now aware of what he can do, it's smart for him to keep striving for improvement. Gibson should not have any trouble accomplishing his goal, based on his rookie season. Week by week, he transformed his potential into a potent weapon.

But it is only Year 1 of Gibson's career; his evolution is only just beginning.

"I'm getting there," Gibson said. "If you can see it, once I get going, I start to get comfortable each game. Being able to know my reads, know where my linemen are going, knowing where my tight end is going, anticipating a play before it happens. It allows me to just run and not worry about too much that's going on. I'm getting there."

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