- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The look on Chris Thompson’s face said it all.

Eleven months ago, after the Redskins’ 34-31 overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints, the running back sat in a chair in the bowels of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — staring off into the distance, crutches resting on his shoulders with a boot around his right leg. His career-defining season? Over.

Hours earlier, Thompson suffered a fractured fibula when a New Orleans defender rolled up on his leg in the third quarter, an injury so bad he had to be carted off the field.

Thompson was devastated.

But what he didn’t know at the time was that in the long, grueling months of rehabilitation ahead, he would rediscover the gifts — physical and mental — that had transformed an undersized kid from Greenville, Florida, into one of the most dangerous backs in the NFL.  

He’s still the glue

Redskins running backs coach Randy Jordan understands there are a lot of factors that go into a loss: missed assignments, blown blocks, miscommunication.

Washington experienced all of those in the final minutes of last year’s collapse against the Saints.

But asked if the Redskins would have won if Thompson had just stayed healthy, Jordan replied, “I think so, I think so.”

After all, Thompson was the Redskins’ best player in 2017. He’d notched 804 yards (510 receiving, 294 rushing) from the line of scrimmage. When he went down, the Redskins’ offense cratered — dropping from 359.4 yards per game in 10 games with Thompson to just 267.5 in the six without.

A year later, as the 2- 1 Redskins prepare to return to New Orleans for a Monday night rematch, Thompson remains the catalyst in coach Jay Gruden’s offense, despite the arrival of future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson.

“He’s still the glue,” Jordan said. “From my position, Adrian was a big pickup, but I’m just telling you without Chris Thompson — coach Jordan is getting balled real quick. He’s so smart. He can play on first, second and third down.

“He’s probably in the most crucial offense, when you talk about third down, you talk about two-minute, at the end of the half, special situations. He’s one of the best space players I’ve ever coached.”

That wasn’t always the case.

A 2013 fifth-round pick out of Florida State, Thompson failed to make the initial 53-man roster in his second year, the team’s first under Gruden. Instead, Thompson was offered a spot on the practice squad — a demotion that left him steaming.

After telling his agent he didn’t want to return to the Redskins, he calmed down and signed. When he sat for a face-to-face meeting with Gruden, the rookie head coach vowed the team had plans for him.

But Thompson had work to do — starting with developing his route running.

He not only studied contemporaries like Dion Lewis and James White for their pass-catching abilities, he closely watched teammate Jordan Reed, who as a tight end runs many of the same routes in Gruden’s offense.

That taught Thompson a valuable lesson: play with pace.

In his early days in the NFL, Thompson was always running at full speed — trying to impress the coaching staff every time he was on the field. He wasn’t patient enough to let plays and blocking develop.

“One skillset I do have is my burst,” Thompson said. “And for me, I’m able to — I realized that I could have a good pace when approaching a guy and then my burst would give me that extra boost. … As time went on, I realized I’m fast enough to take my time and be patient.”

The approach worked. Thompson’s transformation helped the coaching staff finally see him as a running back they could build a game plan around.

Even coming off his injury this year, the 27-year-old leads the Redskins with 23 receptions for 155 yards and 33 targets.

Opposing defenses have learned that stopping Thompson is one of the keys to beating the Redskins. The Packers, who visited FedEx Field in Week 3, often used two players — a defensive lineman and a defensive back — to contain him.

That tactic held Thompson in check — he finished with one catch for no yards and 18 yards rushing. But the Redskins won the game, as other playmakers were freed up with Green Bay focused on Thompson.

“You almost have to put a DB in,” safety D.J. Swearinger said. “If you don’t have a linebacker who can really run and cover, you should put a DB in. That’s the only way you can really stop 25 is with another athletic guy. Linebackers, he’s going to destroy them.”

Thompson is clearly more than your typical third-down back, quarterback Alex Smith said.

“It’s easy to label those guys as kind of scat backs, specialist-type backs, but I don’t think Chris is limited in that way,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that can do everything and has a ton of tools. Certainly, the toughness and physicality that he brings is part what — it will make that happen.”

Grueling rehab

A fractured leg might not seem as bad to a guy who’s had a broken back, a torn ACL and a shoulder injury, all of which Thompson has dealt with over his football career. The injury he suffered last year in New Orleans, however, was different.

“This was definitely the hardest one, for sure,” Thompson told The Washington Times.

There were days when all he wanted to do was be left alone — as some of those closest to him can attest.

Near-daily phone calls with his mother sometimes ran shorter than usual, as she could tell his mood by the sound of his voice. And Thompson’s girlfriend gave him space when he wanted to disappear into video games for a few hours.

For Thompson, the day-to-day grind of putting in the work to recover and not instantly seeing results took a toll, especially when the Redskins returned for their offseason practices.

“I felt like I had kind of hit a wall and that I wasn’t getting any better,” Thompson said of his rehab process. “I really was just coming in and doing it just because I had to do it and not so much of like, ‘I’ve got to get better.’”

Thompson’s position coach could sense his player’s discouragement.

“He’s had some serious injuries, but I think the severity of the injury — you’re talking about an ankle — and you’re talking about the way it happened,” Jordan said. “It wasn’t something that he was doing himself, like running in and getting hit. He was actually just blocking. … I think for him, it was just like, ‘Why? Why did it happen like this?’”

The repetitive nature of rehab didn’t help.

Every day, from 9 to 11 a.m., the running back worked with the team’s physical trainers — running on an underwater treadmill, doing exercises to restore the flexibility in his ankle.

Every day, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Thompson hit the weight room, trying to rebuild strength in his leg.

Throughout the process, Thompson heard the same words of encouragement: “Be patient. You’re going to get better.”

Thompson occasionally had his doubts, though. How could he not? For a player of his size — just 5-foot-8 and 194 pounds — speed was everything. He wondered if he would ever get it all back.

“That was part of the struggle I had mentally,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know if I could come back and have that same burst, explosion and all of that.”

But the doctors turned out to be right.

Eventually, Thompson felt better. He can’t remember the exact day, but he hit a turning point sometime in August during the team’s training camp.

His burst was back. And more importantly, the pain in his leg was manageable. He could practice consecutive days in a row.

“At this point, I see the light,” Thompson said. “It’s not anything at all that’s on my mind. It’s one of those things that’s like, now I have a metal plate there so I don’t really have to worry about breaking that ever again.”

Returning to the scene

Coach Jimbo Fisher distinctly remembers two things when visiting Thompson in the hospital with his wife and kids after the then-Florida State star fractured two vertebrae against Wake Forest.

First, it was Thompson — not Fisher — who offered reassurance he was going to be OK. Then, Fisher recalled how that emotional hospital visit was one of the first times his children came to realize the dangers of playing football.

Fisher said his youngest son, Ethan, particularly was shaken up, not wanting to leave Thompson alone when the Fishers had to leave and fly back to Tallahassee.

So Ethan, then 6, left Thompson a parting gift, “his favorite toy in the world:” a miniature of Lightning McQueen, the main character from the animated franchise “Cars.”

“He said, ‘Here, I want you to have this so you’ll have something with you,’” said Fisher, who now coaches at Texas A&M.

Thompson still has the toy car.

Thompson’s return to New Orleans Monday night won’t be the first time the running back had to go back to the scene of a catastrophic injury. A year after Thompson’s broken back, the Seminoles returned to Raleigh, North Carolina.

In the lead up to that game, Thompson isolated himself from his teammates. He was quiet.

“I didn’t talk to anybody all week,” Thompson said. “I was just in this ‘I have to dominate’ game mode.”

Dominate he did. By the end of the Seminoles’ 52-0 victory, Thompson had 197 yards on just nine carries for two touchdowns — both of which were on runs of over 70 yards.

Fisher said Thompson was one of his best players during his tenure at Florida State, even if the stats don’t back it up.

“He doesn’t get the credit,” Fisher said. “If he had been healthy, his numbers would have been astronomical, as good as anybody who had ever played there. He was so productive.”

The Redskins would gladly take the same type of production against the Saints. Thompson said he was unsure of how he’d feel, though admitted he would most likely have “extra juice” for Monday’s matchup.

But if the meeting doesn’t go exactly as planned, much like Thompson’s career, he’ll be ready to face it head-on.

“Chris is one of those guys where — and I’m not ashamed to say it, and I love it as a coach — but there’s nothing I can say to Chris Thompson that is going to make him feel worse than what Chris Thompson feels,” Jordan said. “So I can correct him, but I can guarantee you that Chris Thompson has went through [a mistake] however many times in his head. Like he’s replayed the game in his head over 40 or 50 times. Things that’s he’s messed up on.

“It’s one of those things with him like, ‘Chris, come on, man.’”

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