ASHBURN — With every fumble, the target on Antonio Gibson’s chest grows.
In the NFL, defenders know which running backs are prone to cough up the ball. And for those backs, defenses react accordingly — sensing opportunity at hand.
“They always try to knock (the ball) out,” Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said, “but it’s even more so when those things start to happen.”
If he’s not careful, Gibson could develop a reputation as a turnover-prone back, soon. This season, the 23-year-old has already fumbled four times for Washington — losing two. Among running backs, that’s tied for the lead in both categories (fumbles and fumbles lost).
The fumblitis, if you will, is an unexpected development for Gibson — who only fumbled once as a rookie last season. Half of this season’s bobbles have come within the last two weeks. Gibson lost a fumble against the Kansas City Chiefs and nearly lost one this past weekend in Green Bay — leaving a trailing Taylor Heinicke to scoop in and make the recovery.
Each time, Gibson appeared to be too loose with the football.
“You cannot relax on those things because you see what happens,” Turner said. “It’s obviously not acceptable. He’s working on it, but he’s got to improve that. We can’t put the ball on the ground. … We can’t give them away.”
Gibson, of course, is not a natural running back as he played wide receiver in college. When the team drafted him in the third round last year, it did so with the intention of putting him in the backfield. Perhaps Gibson’s recent inability to tightly secure the ball is due to that — in the grand scheme of things — the Memphis product is still relatively new to the position.
But what’s strange about Gibson’s giveaways is they really weren’t a problem before. Washington’s coaches trusted Gibson to handle a big workload — and Gibson showed he was up to the task. Gibson finished with 170 rushing attempts for 795 yards in 2020. This year, he’s already had 103 carries for 408 yards in seven games. Turner said Gibson is “fully capable” of running without fumbling.
Now, it will be up to Gibson to show that the fumbles haven’t affected him mentally. When fumble issues start to occur, Turner said doubt can “absolutely” creep into a young player’s mind. “I’ve seen guys where all they think about is that,” Turner said, adding the rest of their performance starts to suffer.
But teammate Terry McLaurin said Gibson has taken the right approach.
“Antonio is just learning to move onto the next play and not compound things with another bad thing,” McLaurin said. “And that’s hard when you’re a guy who you’re young and you care because every play matters. Those mistakes happen. You don’t want ‘em to happen, but we just try to encourage him because he’s our every-down back for the most part.
“He’s going to touch the ball and he’s going to touch it a lot. … We have a lot of confidence in him to continue to carry the ball.”
Among the other running backs in the league, Buffalo’s Devin Singletary has also fumbled four times. Three backs, meanwhile, have lost two fumbles besides Gibson: Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones II, New England’s Damien Harris and Kansas City’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff leads the league overall with four fumbles lost and shares a four-way tie for the most fumbles (6).
If the situation doesn’t improve, Gibson could be in the doghouse. That’s a route that a lot of coaches take when young running backs struggle to hang on to the ball. Five years ago, former Washington coach Jay Gruden benched 2015 third-rounder Matt Jones after his third fumble of the year in October. Rob Kelley took over as the starter and Jones did not play again that season.
For now, that’s premature. Coach Ron Rivera said he was pleased with Gibson’s progress this season, telling reporters the second-year back was “just scratching the surface” at the position. Gibson, too, has been productive, even with a stress fracture in his shin.
Gibson’s production, though, will only go so far if the problems persist.
“It doesn’t matter what he’s doing,” Turner said, “if he’s not holding onto the ball.”
Correction: Story updated to reflect that Matt Jones was a third-round pick in the 2015 draft.