At his last job, Ron Rivera helped develop Christian McCaffrey into a superstar.
The Carolina Panthers running back burst onto the scene under the head coach's tutelage, setting records as a rookie in 2017 before coming into his own as one of the NFL's rarest players by the end of his sophomore season.
Now in D.C., Rivera has begun coaching up the player who could become the league's next great all-around running back.
The Washington Football Team roster the coach inherited in late 2019 was bereft of any McCaffrey-like talent, so during Rivera's first draft, he convinced the team to spend a third-round pick on a prospect who could bring a new dimension to the offense.
After Washington selected wide receiver-turned-running back Antonio Gibson with the No. 66 pick last year, Rivera started drawing comparisons between his newest back and the one he helped mold into a game-breaker for Carolina, telling reporters:
"He's a little bit bigger than Christian, but he's got a skill-set like Christian. He's shown some position flexibility playing in the slot. He's shown some flexibility of playing in the backfield. I think they even ran some Wildcat with him with him being the center taking direct snaps. So this is a very versatile young football player that we really think is going to be a guy that can get on the field for us early and contribute."
Rivera was spot-on with his assessment, as the 6'2", 220-pound Gibson immediately played a major role. The Memphis product racked up 795 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 170 rushing attempts while adding 247 yards on 36 receptions. He was one of the few bright spots for a squad that ranked No. 30 in total offense last year as it struggled to overcome the lack of consistent quarterback play.
Just like the 5'11", 205-pound McCaffrey, Gibson finished with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage during his rookie year. He also scored four more times than McCaffrey did in his first season and did so despite playing two fewer games, an impressive feat for a player who had just 33 rushing attempts in college.
McCaffrey's initial campaign was strong, as he became the first back to catch at least 70 passes and grab five receiving touchdowns, but he didn't truly emerge until his sophomore season in 2018.
He made history that year, finishing with an eye-popping 1,098 yards rushing, 867 yards receiving and 13 scores. He did that while setting a then-NFL record of 107 receptions as a running back in a single season. He broke that mark again the next year with 116 catches while becoming just the third player to have at least 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in one season.
The 23-year-old Gibson is drawing rave reviews this offseason and appears poised to have a breakout campaign of his own. With Ryan Fitzpatrick taking over under center, behind a sturdy offensive line that ranked No. 6 by Pro Football Focus metrics in 2020, Gibson should have an easier time pumping up his receiving numbers.
Rivera noted the main hurdle Gibson faces, per Alex Flum of LocalDVM.com: "I can see him continue to grow. A big part of it is doing it consistently. If we run it five times to have him do it five times consistently, not three really good, one OK and the one you-gotta-be-better-at. That's where I want to see him get to."
Kyle Allen, Washington's backup quarterback, believes Gibson will take on a three-down role and become a centerpiece this year.
Allen didn't hold back on drawing parallels between his current teammate and former one in McCaffrey. The signal-caller, who played with the Panthers back during his record-setting stretch in 2018-19, told reporters Tuesday that Washington's offense is being tailored around Gibson's skill set:
"You saw Christian McCaffrey in this offense a couple of years ago. Obviously, one of the best players in the league. But, I think that's where we're trying to push Antonio to go. ... We try and get him the ball in the pass game. We try and run the ball with him a ton. We'll motion him out, we'll use him in different spaces."
It's hardly a surprise to see Gibson taking on a larger role after his strong rookie season. He's clearly becoming more comfortable with his various duties after playing a limited amount of running back in college. He should only get better with more familiarity.
Gibson's teammates are taking note of how much he has elevated his play between the end of last season and training camp.
Allen's praise for the young back was glowing: "He's improved a ton. He's gaining a lot more confidence, he's playing a lot faster, understanding it, making decisions quicker. Just like last year, the more reps, the better he gets. He's just been continuously getting better."
As long as Gibson can stay healthy—he dealt with a turf toe injury late in 2020 that kept him sidelined for two games and hindered his effectiveness upon his return—he will shine.
The blueprint for Gibson to become a superstar is already in place thanks to Rivera's work with McCaffrey.
All that's left is for the second-year back to execute.