Antonio Gibson's fumbles must stop if he's to be the running back WFT hopes

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Gibson's fumbles must stop if he's to be running back WFT hopes originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

After an impressive rookie season last fall where he scored 11 touchdowns, Antonio Gibson entered the 2021 season with extraordinarily high expectations. In fact, the former college wideout-turned-running back even earned comparisons to Carolina Panthers' star, do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey.

Yet, through seven weeks of the 2021 season, Gibson has shown flashes of his potential but has yet to truly make the sophomore jump many thought he would. 

To be fair, Gibson has been playing through injury, as a stress fracture in his shin has prevented him from practicing in full capacity for over a month. But, there's another factor that's held him back thus far in 2021: his ball security.

Gibson has fumbled the football four times in seven games, the most of any non-quarterback this season. Two of his fumbles have been recovered by the opponent, with both turnovers coming in games that were within one-score at the time. There's never a good time to fumble, but Gibson has coughed up the football at very inopportune times for the Washington Football Team.

On Thursday, Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner was asked about Gibson's fumbling issues and was pretty blunt that things need to improve, and soon.

"It's something that's obviously not acceptable and he's working on it. But he's got to improve that," Turner said. "We can't put the ball on the ground. Possessions are valuable and opportunities to score points are valuable. We can't give them away."

What's specifically odd about Gibson's newfound fumbling problem is that he fumbled twice all of his rookie season. Yet, through just seven weeks of the 2021 campaign, he's already put the ball on the ground double the amount of times than a year ago.

Turner was asked if Gibson's inexperience at the running back position -- he had 33 career carries in college -- could factor into the running back's fumbling issue. Turner responded by saying it might, but isn't giving Gibson an excuse.

"He still carried the ball and carried the ball in traffic," Turner said. "That's a little bit different, but he's had a lot of reps, though, even over the past couple years. He knows better."

Turner also stressed an important point that once a running back has the reputation for fumbling the football, opposing defenses know about it. Turner said that when defenders are going up against a guy who has the tendency to cough it up more than others, they specifically make more of an effort to try and strip the ball on nearly every tackle.

"The unfortunate thing in this league is when you put the ball on the ground, you put a target on your chest. Defenders know that," Turner said. "They always try to knock [the football] out, but it's even more so once things like that start to happen. It's just the discipline of consistent, quality ball security."

Gibson is far from the only young running back who's had fumbling issues before. But, sometimes when a young runner has issues protecting the football early in their career, coaches tend to move in a different direction and give carries to another back with better ball security.

Turner said Thursday he's never personally put a running back in a so-called "doghouse," but has seen it happen before. He doesn't anticipate doing that with Gibson, but hopes that his running back isn't letting his fumbling issues mentally affect him.

"That stuff starts to happen and I've seen guys, then all they think about is [not fumbling]," Turner said. "It takes off other aspects of the game. It's the most important thing. It doesn't matter what else he's doing if he's not holding on to the ball. That's just something he has to work through and get over."

While Gibson has had his struggles this season, his head coach is still quite confident a breakout is coming from the second-year back. Even with his ball security issues, Gibson's continued to be a featured part of Washington's offense and will continue to be.

Turner believes that the running back's fumbling problem is fixable and hopes that Gibson is able to make those changes quickly to better protect the football. 

"He's shown good examples of it," Turner said. "He's fully capable and strong enough. He just can't relax in those situations."