How Rivera plans to help Antonio Gibson get past fumbling issues originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The hole had been cleared. After that, a one-on-one with a defender was looming. And just beyond that, the end zone was beckoning.
Everything on the first-quarter run was set up for Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson to score a touchdown. But that path to six points became irrelevant when Gibson fumbled almost immediately after taking the handoff from quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
That mistake on Sunday against Carolina marked the fifth time Washington's starting running back has put the ball on the ground this year, and more importantly, the third time he turned it over to the other team.
Following the error, Ron Rivera held Gibson out of the lineup through halftime before eventually re-inserting him early in the third quarter. On Monday, the coach explained his thinking behind that temporary benching.
"'Hey, look, you're going to get a chance again, just relax, get over with it and get ready to roll,'" Rivera recalled telling Gibson. "We sat down for a little bit, let him get through it. And then we got him back out there and gave him the ball right back. I think that's what you have to do, but you know, you do want to just take a breath and sit down for a second."
Gibson's three lost fumbles in 2021 have been especially costly.
In Week 1 versus the Chargers, he was stripped on his own 4-yard line, and Los Angeles quickly converted that into the deciding touchdown. Then, in a Week 6 meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs, he again lost one in his territory, this time on the 34. As for the win over the Panthers, his latest gaffe occurred on Carolina's 13, well inside the red zone.
Three such blunders in 10 appearances means Gibson is officially in a worrisome funk when it comes to ball security. What's so difficult about the situation, though, is that Gibson is such a key part of the offense, especially over the past couple of weeks.
There's obviously a risk in continuing to trust him, yet Washington's at its best when No. 24 is getting consistent touches. So, how does Rivera intend to handle the second-year pro in the future?
"Just continue to work on it and not make it a blown out, blown up situation," Rivera said. "Reinforce protecting the ball, not just saying, 'Don't fumble it.' You know what I'm saying? I mean, that's the truth of the matter is we don't want him worrying about fumbling. We want to worry about protecting, carrying it properly the way it needs to.
"It is a mindset. It is all about understanding how to communicate my opinion to a player, so that he's thinking about the important thing of protecting the ball, as opposed to not fumbling the ball."
Rivera's been known to really back his players publicly when they're struggling — but then, when those struggles reach a certain point, he's shown a tendency to bail. Right now, Gibson appears to still be in the coach's plan, which makes sense since he was a huge factor in the victory over Tampa Bay and bounced back to rip off some skillful runs last Sunday as well.
Even so, if Rivera was willing to sit Gibson out for more than a quarter in Carolina, what will he do the next time the 23-year-old fumbles? His backups, JD McKissic and Jaret Patterson, are both turnover free and able to generate positive gains when they're asked to do so, so it's not like Gibson is Washington's only choice.
Therefore, while Gibson appears to have Rivera in his corner, the equation is quite simple for him moving forward: Holding onto the ball is a way to hold onto his job. Gibson is dynamic, he's developing — but he's also dangerously close to a more permanent demotion.