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After a season of ball-security woes, could Antonio Gibson’s role change?

Notes from training camp

After running back Antonio Gibson struggled with fumbles last season, Coach Ron Rivera preached patience. Now, that patience may be running out. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

For the second day in a row, running back Antonio Gibson’s practice reps prompted questions about his status as the Washington Commanders’ lead back.

On Tuesday, Gibson first appeared on special teams as a slot blocker on the punt team. On Wednesday, he returned punts and kicks. In team drills, the backs usually rotate among first, second and third team, but on both days, Brian Robinson Jr. and J.D. McKissic took a greater share of the reps with the first two, and Gibson spent significant time with the third.

In news conferences, Coach Ron Rivera has been vague about whether Gibson’s reps are a motivational tactic after he fumbled again Saturday or they indicate legitimate consideration of a new role. Rivera said Gibson fielded punts and kicks because he was “very explosive, very dynamic in college” and added that the team might split the duties for punt and kickoff returns.

Two notable points here: First, if Washington decides to split returns, it would be a change from the beginning of camp, when special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor said the team wanted a dual returner. Second, if the team actually has Gibson return, he probably would handle kickoffs; he didn’t return punts in four years of college.

In 2019 at Memphis, Gibson returned 23 kickoffs for 645 yards (for an average of 28 yards) and showcased his big-play ability with a 97-yard touchdown return against SMU.

As a rookie in 2020, Gibson didn’t fumble on 170 carries; his only fumble, which he lost, came after a catch. But last season, Gibson put the ball on the ground six times — five on rushes, once after a catch — and lost four fumbles, both NFL-leading totals among non-quarterbacks.

Compounding the problem: Gibson fumbled only at bad times. The four he lost were all in valuable field position during close games. Gibson’s giveaways cost his team more expected points added (minus-21.1) than any other skill player’s except Denver running back Melvin Gordon (minus-23.4).

It seemed possible Gibson had fumble-itis because he was playing through several lower-body injuries. In December, Rivera preached patience and said running backs coach Randy Jordan was teaching Gibson how to protect the ball while falling because that’s when he struggled most.

Antonio Gibson’s rigorous plan to lose ‘bad weight’ and be more explosive

This offseason, Gibson focused on ball security by running with a weighted ball to remind him when he didn’t hold it tight enough. In training camp, Jordan has regularly devoted drills to protecting the football. But the issue persists nine months later, and Rivera has grown frustrated. After the preseason opener, the coach criticized Gibson for not running hard or decisively on some plays.

“I’m telling you this so you guys can remind him,” Rivera told reporters. “[Going sideways in the backfield is] not what I want to see. I want to see him one cut and get going. That’s when he’s at his best.”

Ultimately, if Gibson runs hard and protects the ball Saturday in Kansas City, this week of practice may end up a blip in a productive season. If he loses the ball again or if Rivera sees a different combination of backs he prefers, it could change the way Washington’s offense looks headed into the third year of the Rivera era.

A sportsbook at FedEx Field

After a review, the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency awarded the Commanders a sports wagering license. The Commanders plan to put a sportsbook at FedEx Field, joining the list of local sports venues — Nationals Park, Audi Field, Capital One Arena — with one.

In the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals are set to unveil the league’s first brick-and-mortar sportsbook next month.

In a statement, the Commanders thanked Maryland and endorsed the approach by local leaders “to invite equitable and diverse participation” in the sports-betting industry.

“We are looking forward to revealing more about our plans to stakeholders and fans alike in the weeks ahead,” the team added.

Injury report

Down its top four interior offensive linemen — Trai Turner (quadriceps), Andrew Norwell, Chase Roullier (post-surgery rehab) and Wes Schweitzer (hip) — Washington had to get creative at practice Wednesday. The team moved right tackle Sam Cosmi to right guard — which Rivera called “an emergency thing” — and replaced him with swing tackle Cornelius Lucas. Saahdiq Charles filled in at left guard, and Keith Ismael and Jon Toth played center.

The team has two healthy tight ends. Curtis Hodges joined John Bates (calf) and Cole Turner (hamstring) on the side field, leaving Armani Rogers and Eli Wolf to take all the reps.

Reserve linemen Nolan Laufenberg and Rashod Hill also did not practice.

While still on the field, reserve lineman Aaron Monteiro seems to be in pain — and he sometimes creates dangerous situations. On Tuesday, he fell backward into third-string quarterback Sam Howell, prompting a worried “ooh!” from the crowd. On Wednesday, he fell forward into the path of linebacker Khaleke Hudson, who accidentally kicked him in the head.

Temperatures cool

After an intense, padded practice Tuesday that Rivera thought went too far, the atmosphere cooled considerably Wednesday. Washington wore shorts and shells, trash talk slowed, and defensive backs coach Chris Harris stood relatively quietly on the sideline rather than screaming constantly from about 30 yards behind the play.

“The tempo in which they practiced was excellent, and that’s really what we’re looking for,” Rivera said. “Yesterday was more about just practicing smart. We had a couple shots that we were taking that I didn’t like, I didn’t approve of. Do that in a game, and somebody might get in trouble for it. So I just wanted to emphasize that ‘Hey … let’s practice smart.’ ”

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