Sometime during the offseason, Keenan Robinson hopped on to an online store, hit “check out,” and became a walking football cliche.

After thinking about his team’s under-performing 2014 defense and his likely leadership role this season, Washington’s fourth-year middle linebacker decided what he really needed was a classic Stanley lunch pail. The kind with the latches on the front and a handle on top. The kind with plenty of room for a trusty Thermos. The kind carried by — you knew this was coming — blue-collar, hard-hatted proles.

Robinson ordered his lunch pail (he thinks it was from Amazon, cha-ching), and it became a staple during summer practices. He carried it to and from training camp sessions in Richmond. He did the same during August mornings back in Ashburn. Teammates asked Robinson whether he was toting hidden stashes of food to the practice field; reporters (okay, it was me) wondered if there were Goldfish or Doritos inside. Eventually, everyone realized it was about symbolism more than sandwiches.

“People know what’s up when they see it,” Robinson said after a recent preseason practice. “It’s just a mind-set: that every day we come to work.”

This seems an awful lot like a gimmick, until you start asking people to describe their first impressions of the linebacker. They zero in on the same thing. No, not his tackling form.

“He was quiet, he took his notes, and he worked, he came to work every day,” said fellow linebacker Perry Riley Jr.

“When it’s time for him to open his mouth, believe me, he’ll open it,” said defensive end Ricky-Jean Francois. “But until then, he’s just going to do the work. That’s it.”

“His effort is what makes the difference,” said Jeff ‘Mad Dog’ Madden, Robinson’s former strength coach at the University of Texas. “He was always a dutiful person. He was always a guy that was a taskmaster.”

And so fine, the middle linebacker sweats out sawdust and bleeds crude oil and all the other blue-collar metaphors you can dream up. What makes this interesting, though, is that the players who surround him in Washington’s revamped D have slightly different reputations.

Robinson will play in front of a brash but unpredictable group of defensive backs, probably the team’s biggest question mark after its quarterback. He’ll play behind a group of toll-booth sized defensive linemen, who have already given themselves a nickname (“Capital Punishment”) and pledged to become one of the NFL’s dominant units. He’ll play beside outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan — the defense’s marquee player, and the new owner of a $57.5 million contract. (Robinson is still on his rookie deal.)

So it makes sense that nobody is talking about the guy in the middle of the defense, the 26-year old who led Washington in tackles last season despite playing just 13 games. It’s Robinson who hands out the play calls in the huddle, Robinson who tells teammates where they’re supposed to be and barks out orders on the field.

“He does everything you want your ‘Mike’ ‘backer to do,” Riley said; “command the huddle, demand attention from everybody, just be the all-around leader on the field.

Some of those responsibilities have changed with the arrival of new coordinator Joe Barry and a host of new linemen. As that larger and more talented group adopts a more aggressive style, the ‘backers should have more freedom to make plays. Pressure and run-stopping should come from the front, if all goes according to plan, and Robinson and Riley say they’ll be able to play at a different speed.

“He doesn’t have a lot of responsibility, because he has the best front in the league,” said Terrance Knighton, who can craft more memorable lines in one afternoon than Robinson will over an entire season. “It’s hard playing middle linebacker, but he’s a fast player, he’s a smart player, and he doesn’t have to do more than he needs to do.”

The thing Robinson probably needs most is to remain healthy. Drafted in the fourth round in 2012, 17 picks after the guy calling plays on the other side of the ball for Washington, Robinson has dealt with injuries in each of his first three seasons. He’s played in exactly half of Washington’s regular-season games over that span, far fewer than the injury-plagued Robert Griffin III.

And while he’s an afterthought in almost every review of the new Washington defense, conversations with teammates make him seem nearly indispensable.

“Playing with him, it’s like I’m still playing with a [Pro Bowl] linebacker,” said Francois, who teamed with Pro Bowler D’Qwell Jackson in Indianapolis last season. “He’s the type of linebacker that every d-lineman should dream of.”

Coaches, too. At Texas, the doors to the gym would open 30 minutes before 6 a.m. workouts; “when the door unlocked, he was walking in,” said Madden, now the president of the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. He lifted more than players bigger than him, ran faster than players smaller than him, and sometimes arrived before the coaches.

“He attacked the weights,” Madden said. “Whatever I had, he’d come do it, and then he’d even come in and get extras.”

This lunch box bit, in other words, didn’t come as a surprise. Robinson learned that his symbolic gesture nicely doubled as a carrying case for energy drinks; “knocks out two birds with one stone,” he laughed. It was also a terrific prop for training-camp photos. No teammates have yet been inspired to join the lunch-pail crew. Still, they’re glad that group has its founding member. 

“Just to see a linebacker having his lunch pail, knowing he’s coming to work every single day — and he don’t do this every-other day; he do this every day.?” Francois said. “That’s a linebacker I want to have behind me.”

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