In the Washington Commanders’ locker room, Coach Ron Rivera said he had a game ball for the running back who just recorded his first 100-yard game in the NFL. Teammates whooped and hollered as Brian Robinson Jr. strode into the middle of the circle wearing an oversize black baseball cap with the team’s logo. Robinson doffed the cap and put his hand up, asking his teammates for a moment.
It had been 91 days since Robinson was shot twice in Northeast Washington.
“I’ve been wanting to say this in front of the team, but since everything happened back in August, man, I promise you — everybody in this room has shown unconditional love and support, man,” he said in a video the team posted on Twitter. “Just to help me get to this point, for real, man, I couldn’t be more thankful for everybody in this room, man. Y’all was people I turned to the most after going through what I went through, man. Just to have this opportunity to do what I did today, I give all y’all the credit, man. Thank y’all.”
The locker room burst into applause for the rookie who, in a breakout performance, led the Commanders’ offense to a 19-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Robinson totaled 18 carries for 105 yards and added two catches for 20 yards and a touchdown, and his ability to succeed despite Atlanta’s heavy boxes and five-man fronts highlighted the value of the role Washington needed him to fill when it drafted him in the third round out of Alabama this past spring.
“His performance was outstanding,” Rivera said.
Third-string running back Jonathan Williams, who went to Arkansas, said every running back from the SEC prides himself on having a tough, hard-nosed style. But he admitted Robinson had a few carries so physical Sunday that even he had to say, “Oh, my gosh.”
One of them was early in the fourth quarter, when Robinson ran through an arm tackle, juked a cornerback, bowled over a safety and dragged two would-be tacklers for a first down.
“I’m not sure what his birthday is, but that day, God gave him a lot of strength — and some size,” Williams said. “It’s genetics.”
In the first half, offensive coordinator Scott Turner stuck to the formula he has often used with Robinson. He gave him the ball on first down and second and medium. Seemingly each time, Robinson was decisive, bursting into a heavy front and grinding out four to six yards. He was a human snowplow, keeping the roads clear for the offense to stay on schedule.
Late in the first quarter, Atlanta seemed to be keying on Robinson, so Turner switched it up. He got the offense into a classic run look — tight formations, two tight ends, wide receiver Cam Sims — but instead called a pass. Robinson leaked out right to the flat. Taylor Heinicke hit him in stride.
Robinson ran over cornerback Darren Hall, powered through linebacker Mykal Walker and extended his arm for the first receiving touchdown of his career.
“It’s you versus a defensive back,” Robinson said. “You’ve got to win at least 80, 90 percent of the time. So I pulled the trigger, and it worked out well.”
In the second half, perhaps sensing the run-heavy approach was wearing on the Falcons’ front, Turner leaned on Robinson even more. Washington’s first possession came down to third and one, and Turner went into a tight formation again, suggesting a run up the middle. Instead, Robinson took the ball on a stretch run left and used two excellent receiver blocks to get outside for a 21-yard gain.
“I wish he was a little bit faster,” joked wide receiver Dyami Brown, one of the blockers. “I’m going to take him to speed training in the offseason, so he can go score [next time].”
On the next drive, Turner started with a Robinson run (five yards). Then another (six) and another (seven) and another (two). In all, Turner called nine runs in 11 plays — six for Robinson — and Heinicke threw a touchdown to tight end John Bates for a lead the team never relinquished. Robinson had gone from snowplow to pace car.
In the locker room afterward, after Robinson’s speech, teammates gushed about the rookie. The running backs, Williams and Antonio Gibson, said he was nowhere near his ceiling. Everyone else applauded his resilience and character.
“Man, it was heartwarming,” defensive end Montez Sweat said of the speech. “With all he’s been through, you just want him to have success — and to be a part of that, it just makes it feel so much better.”
“I was so happy and proud of him with what he’s gone through and just the type of person he is,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “He’s an amazing person, an amazing human being, and I love everything about him.”
After a whirlwind of interviews, Robinson was back at his locker, wearing his big hat backward. He said he was trying to help promote his friend’s big-hat business. Ron Dyer, whose daughter became friends with Robinson at Alabama, bought the hat from NogginBoss, which appeared on entrepreneurial TV show “Shark Tank.” Dyer and his son Kaleb made a custom Commanders design and gave it to Robinson, Kaleb said.
The silly moment seemed fitting for a team and player that improbably have emerged from a storm and found success.
“If you want a big hat, let me know,” Robinson said, grinning.
Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.