For the last three of his nine seasons as the Carolina Panthers' head boss, Ron Rivera had the chance to coach running back Christian McCaffrey. During that span, McCaffrey evolved from a first-round pick into one of the league's most complete and dynamic ball carriers, and by the end of Rivera's time with the Panthers, the sole focal point of Carolina's offense.
In his year and a half since taking the Washington Football Team head job, Rivera has not had a McCaffrey-like player in his backfield. Instead, Washington has relied on a pair of running backs, Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic, to play that McCaffrey-style role in Scott Turner's offense.
Over the past three weeks, Washington has recommitted itself to the run game, relying heavily on both Gibson and McKissic. It's no coincidence that since Turner altered his playcalling style to a run-first offense, Washington has won three in a row.
This new, yet old-school style of football was on display entirely on Monday night, as Washington possessed the football over 41 minutes against the Seahawks in a 17-15 victory. In that win, Gibson touched the football a career-high 36 times and had one of the best games of his brief career. McKissic finished with 12 touches on the day, but two of them finished with trips to the end zone.
While this style of offense is new in Washington, it's not for Rivera. On Wednesday, the head coach said that the duo of Gibson and McKissic reminds him of his early days with the Panthers, when the team was known for its two-back tandems.
"For the most part, what we've done prior to getting Christian, we always had a two-back tandem," Rivera said. "We had DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart for such a long time. And then we had Jonathan and we had Fozzy Whittaker, a young back that came out of Texas who was a very good changeup to Jonathan. Then when Fozzy got hurt and he was slowing down, we had to find another weapon, and we found Christian in Jonathan's last year."
The way Carolina used Williams and Stewart under Rivera is eerily similar to how Washington is using Gibson and McKissic. The Panthers used both Williams and Stewart pretty equally, with neither one of them playing more than 55% of offensive snaps in 2012, Rivera's second season. This year in Washington, Gibson is playing 53% of offensive snaps, while McKissic is on the field for 46% of them.
While all four running backs have different skill sets, both Stewart and Williams had plenty of similarities. Stewart was a bigger back than Williams, but he also played a role as a pass-catching back like Williams, too. The same goes for Gibson and McKissic, too, who both have wideout backgrounds but also have proven they can run the football in between the tackles as well.
Although Rivera made it clear he was thrilled to have coached McCaffrey, having a rotation of running backs is his ideal way of running an offense.
"After [Stewart's last season] is pretty much when Christian took off. He was short of being a thousand-thousand guy, and then the next year he was a thousand-thousand guy for us," Rivera said. "So, having one back really is tough because you don't want that guy to really be the focus, you want to have a good rotational system. And right now, I think that's kind of where we are.
"We have a good rotational system," the head coach continued. "I like the three young men [Gibson, McKissic and rookie Jaret Patterson] that we have carrying the ball for us. They're all versatile. They all do their own thing, and they have their characteristics and their traits that fit what we do."
The duo of Gibson and McKissic has been a success for Washington, but there's no telling it's a long-term plan, either. McKissic is a free agent after the season and based on his past two years, he'll likely draw interest from many teams. Washington would love for him to stay, but there's no guarantee of that.
Then, on the flip side, there's also the chance that Gibson becomes that true do-it-all back. His skill set earned him comparisons to McCaffrey before he ever took an NFL snap, and his high volume this past Monday against the Seahawks showed he's capable of handling that McCaffrey-like role. Of course, health is a major factor, too, and Gibson has dealt with both nagging toe and shin injuries over the first two years of his career.
For now, though, Washington plans to continue riding the backs of Gibson and McKissic to keep the offense going. So far, so good.
"When you can run the ball, it helps everybody out," quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. "But especially myself, it's nice handing the ball off to AG and seeing him do his thing and same thing with J.D."