With 2020 representing the year where Antonio Gibson made his first splash in the NFL, 2021 was supposed to be the campaign where he cannonballed.
The college-receiver-turned-pro-running-back was a favorite among analysts and fantasy experts to break out this season, and the comparisons to Christian McCaffrey continued to roll in as Week 1 approached.
But through seven contests, Gibson has yet to fully deliver on all of those expectations. The splashes have been there, much like they were when he was a rookie, but it feels like there's more for him to unlock before he truly starts making waves.
Ron Rivera certainly thinks that's the case, at least.
"Oh, there's a lot," Rivera told reporters Wednesday about what parts of Gibson's skill set remain to be revealed. "I do think he's really still scratching the surface."
Currently, Gibson is 12th in the NFL in rushing yards, so it's not like he's struggling to be a useful piece of Washington's offense.
However, he's posted just one scamper that's gone for more than 20 yards and his yards-per-carry average of 4.0 is far lower than his mark of 4.7 from last year.
In the team's last contest against the Packers, there was a sequence that summarized Gibson's present plight.
On his first rush of the second half, Taylor Heinicke handed the ball off to No. 24, who proceeded to take one slow step forward before bursting through a hole that had opened up on the line's left side. Just as Gibson is about to escape and get to the defense's second level, though — where it would've been him, a safety and about 70 yards of open space — he trips and stumbles for what ends up being a gain of just six yards.
Overall, it was a solid run that was on the verge of becoming a spectacular one. And that's been a theme for Gibson.
"Those are the types of explosive plays that we believe we can get from him," Rivera said when reflecting on that particular rep. "He's been on the cusp a couple of times."
Gibson's physical assets are rare. He's sturdy enough to handle work in between the tackles, creative enough to spin off of linebackers and defensive backs and fast enough to pull away from opponents when he has the chance to.
But the reality is that, after lining up at receiver for much of his college career, he's just not fully used to running back. He's learned plenty in 22 NFL games, but what he's learned pales in comparison to what there is still to learn (his four fumbles could be an example of that).
What's complicated that already arduous process is Gibson's health, which became a problem late last season and has affected him in recent weeks as well.
"The hard part is having the shin injury," Rivera said. "He hasn't really gotten the type of practice he needs, especially at the running back position, to understand, 'Hey, in certain plays against certain defenses this week, this is what you've got to do, these are the little things that you've got to work on.'"
As for his contributions as a pass-catching back, he hasn't done much there aside from that absurd 73-yard touchdown grab versus the Bills in Week 3. In seven appearances overall, he's logged only 14 receptions. Why isn't he offering more in that regard?
According to Rivera, that has more to do with one of Gibson's backfield mate and less with Gibson himself.
"That's JD [McKissic's] thing," the coach explained. "He creates a lot of mismatches. That's the thing we used last year and we're trying to make sure we use it this year."
Again, there's nothing really wrong with where Gibson is in his development. He was a Day 2 draft selection who's been asked to accept an entirely new role — which is taxing enough on its own — and fight through injuries, too. Despite those obstacles, he's asserted himself as a regular in the end zone and has been a steady contributor on a rocky offense.
That being said, there's also something that's holding him back from becoming the serious star most think he can be. Whether it's a better understanding of how to attack defenses, better luck with health or something else, hopefully he figures it out. As promising as his six-yard runs are, the 75-yard scores will be much more fun.