For Washington, one of the fiercest competitions will be at running back. The position figures to look much different from last season, when interim coach Bill Callahan spearheaded an old-school, run-heavy unit intent on taking pressure off rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins. This year, new offensive coordinator Scott Turner figures to lean on his running backs in creative ways — shifting them to create mismatches, deploying them in the passing game — as he did with do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey with the Carolina Panthers.
Washington running backs coach Randy Jordan knows the passing-game responsibilities will be a different kind of challenge for his players. They must now identify leverages and routes they hadn’t needed to before, and they must get more comfortable with playing in space. Last season, Washington was in the bottom half of the league in passing targets for running backs, and the only back with more than 20 — Chris Thompson with 58 — is gone. In Carolina, McCaffrey led all NFL running backs in targets with 142.
“I’m excited because it stretches me as a coach,” Jordan said. “The big thing is learning and emphasizing something that I haven’t emphasized in a long time.”
Washington won’t ask every running back to play the same role as McCaffrey, who has established himself as one of the best offensive playmakers in the league. This is why it signed J.D. McKissic, who caught 34 of 42 targets last season, and drafted Antonio Gibson, who can play wide receiver and running back. Those two can complement power runners Adrian Peterson and Peyton Barber, as well as recent draft picks Derrius Guice and Bryce Love, who have flashed potential when not sidelined by injuries. Josh Ferguson, who had been the team’s seventh running back, was released Monday.
Though Barber appears to be on the outside for now, he’ll have a window to prove he belongs. Phase 2 of the NFL’s training camp protocol, the “ramp-up” practices, begins Aug. 13, and teams can start contact practices Aug. 18. They’re allowed 14 padded practices before Sept. 6. Coach Ron Rivera has stressed the importance of these “live” dry runs in determining his roster for the season.
No matter who emerges as Washington’s five or so running backs, Jordan believes this is the most versatile group he has had in years. He grew excited in describing the players’ potential on a recent video conference call with reporters. The running backs can stress the defense by mixing formations and alignments, he said, and there are a few players who are key to this. Jordan emphasized McKissic (a “fire-starter” with big-play potential), Gibson (a raw, talented athlete) and Guice (an underrated pass catcher if healthy). Guice has only played five games in two seasons because of injuries.
“I always tell him this: ‘The only thing you did this past year [was] an appetizer. I want the whole steak; I want the whole lobster; I want the whole thing,’ ” Jordan said of his conversations with Guice. “The biggest thing we do is we don’t talk about [injuries]. But we always talk about, ‘Hey, let’s be smart football players taking care of our body.’ ”
Jordan stresses the same message to Love, who he’s known since high school. Jordan recruited Love — a native of Wake Forest, N.C. — to the University of North Carolina, and he believes Love has some of the same skills as McCaffrey, his former teammate at Stanford. Now, Jordan is coaching Love as he returns from the torn ACL that dropped him to the fourth round of the 2019 draft and prevented him from playing last season.
Though Love passed his physical and seems on track to be ready for Week 1, Jordan pointed out that hurdles remain.
“For him, it is just having confidence,” Jordan said. “Making that cut and getting hit. That is the thing with not having any preseason games. It hurts him as a player because he has not played. All the practices that we have lined up, we will get a clean evaluation of him.”
Gibson’s versatility is an asset, Jordan said, but it also creates some issues in that he didn’t participate in many running back meetings in college to learn the details of the position, such as blocking or protection schemes. “He’s clay,” Jordan added, highlighting his natural ability and explosiveness.
If there’s one problem with too much versatility, it’s that Jordan could lose Gibson to the receiving group at times. While Jordan wouldn’t want that, he stressed Gibson could balance learning both positions. Gibson sometimes played quarterback at Memphis and understands offenses as a whole.
Recently, Jordan was quizzing Gibson about the formations. He asked Gibson what he would do on a certain play, and Gibson started telling him the responsibilities of the “F” receiver.
“I said: ‘Whoa, whoa, let’s back this up. You're the halfback,’ ” Jordan said, laughing. “He said: ‘Oh, Coach, I’m sorry. I thought I was at the ‘F’ this time.’ So, I think that he is really dialed in in terms of what he has to do with the receivers position and also the running back position.”
Jordan also understands that with a deeper and more versatile running back group, he must also balance who gets the ball. He pointed out that Rivera put “TEAM” on the back of everyone’s jerseys, and he emphasized he believes in winning as a cure-all.
“I preach it all the time,” Jordan said. “If we are winning and we’re being a successful offense, you will have enough touches to go around.”