Antonio Gibson's 2022 season began with him nearly losing his job.
While it was always going to be a committee, Gibson had reason to worry about his standing in Washington's backfield. Rookie Brian Robinson had emerged as the Commanders' preferred choice at running back, while Gibson -- seen as a 2022 breakout candidate just a few months earlier -- was spending the latter portion of training camp and the preseason getting reps on special teams.
The worst ultimately did not become reality for any of the Commanders' running backs in 2022.
Robinson survived an attempted carjacking and recovered from two gunshot wounds in time to play in 12 games and lead Washington in rushing with 797 yards, while Gibson handled starting duties while Robinson wasn't available, and eventually settled into a secondary, yet versatile role in the backfield.
That's likely going to be his role again under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, with an added emphasis on involving Gibson in the passing game even more.
"I still like what we saw as far as the growth was concerned with Antonio," Rivera said Friday. "I'd like to see Antonio get a few more tries, obviously last year, but Antonio's shown tremendous growth and we're pretty excited about who he could be. This is a guy that played wide receiver at one time coming out and one thing that he did have was every nine touches resulted in a touchdown, so we're looking for some production from him as well and we're looking to see that he does fit in into the scheme of things as far as what Eric Bieniemy wants to do with the offense."
Bieniemy rose to prominence as an OC in Kansas City, where he worked under Andy Reid and played a significant role in turning the Chiefs' offense into one of the most explosive attacks of this era. Having Patrick Mahomes helps, of course, but so does utilizing players' skill sets to maximize their potential within the system.
It's a vague description, but as it pertains to running back, what would truly open up Washington's attack (outside of better quarterback play) is a bit of unpredictability based on personnel.
Gibson, a former receiver at Memphis, seems to fit into this role. He's demonstrated he can run with purpose, averaging 4 yards per carry or more in his first two seasons before finishing at 3.9 in 2022, and has the receiving background to be a threat on every down -- if Washington can execute well enough to capitalize on these skills.
Ball security was an issue for him last year, leading to the training camp demotion, and he cannot afford to be careless with the football again in 2023. Another rookie lurks as a potential factor in Chris Rodriguez, a physical runner who could fill a role behind Robinson as a between-the-tackles grinder, but he isn't expected to take away passing-down snaps from a player like Gibson.
That doesn't mean Rivera isn't looking for candidates. When asked which rookies might help balance out their running back room, Rivera made sure to mention undrafted free agent Kazmeir Allen, touting his versatility displayed at UCLA in two phases of the game. He stands as a returner candidate for now, but crazier things have happened, especially for a team looking for options out of the backfield in the passing game.
2023 will be Bieniemy's first chance to mold Washington's offense to fit his vision. It's a good time for Gibson to capitalize.