Talk about flipping the script on everybody. A year ago Jaguars running back Denard Robinson was a former college QB for a major Big Ten University with a future as uncertain as test results after skinny dipping with a porn star. Now the former signal caller turned tailback is cutting it up, hitting holes, lowering his helmet and leading the Jaguars in rushing with 423 yards and two touchdowns.
He’s also averaging a robust 4.8 yards per carry and after a rookie season that saw him play every skill position but offensive line, Robinson has settled into his role as one of the NFL’s fresh, funky rock-toters.
Sunday’s 94-yard performance helped a stinky Jags team keep a 33-23 loss to Cincinnati interesting, that’s really all Jags fans can ask for in these dark days. Robinson’s 5-yard TD plunge pulled the Jags within three points (23-26) with 8:13 left in the game.
Robinson fell just six yards short of his third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance of his brief career. In week 7 he had his breakout game, rushing for a career-high 127 yards on 22 carries in a win against Cleveland. The following week he ripped off 108 yards on 18 carries for a 6.0 ypc clip.
The last time a Jaguars running back had a back-to-back 100 yard performance was in 2011 when Maurice-Jones Drew picked up 112 yards on 17 carries against the ATL Falcons and 103 yards on 24 carries against the Titans.
We had Denard Robinson all twisted. He wasn’t going to be another undersized black QB who fell short of NFL standards, couldn’t or wouldn’t find another position and then bounced to the CFL or just vanished into obscurity. Such a fate is what many football experts predicted for Robinson, who was a dynamic offensive weapon in college with wicked wheels and major-play abilities.
“We felt like overall we needed speed on our team, and he possessed that,” Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. “Initially he was categorized as an offensive weapon. We tried him a little at receiver, at running back, and ran some Wildcat with him, just trying to find out how to best use his skill set.”
Robinson was the starting QB in all 26 games for the 2010 and 2011 Michigan Wolverines football teams and played at the same position as a senior in 2012. He did however, play receiver in the second half of the season and got a glimpse into his future when he started against Iowa in his final home game at Michigan as a running back.
In recent years black QB’s who have played the position and won in college have been increasingly reluctant to switch positions at the pro level. In Robinson’s case, it was either switch positions or prepare not to get drafted. He doesn’t have Charlie Ward’s field vision or leadership acumen. He has a rocket for an arm but he didn’t have Steve “Air” McNair’s accuracy. While explosive and multi-faceted on the field, Robinson’s QB skill set didn’t project well to NFL offenses. The only thing he’s really ill at is running the rock. He was an average passer at Michigan, completing 57 percent of his passes for 6,250 yards and 49 touchdowns with 39 interceptions, and his throws in his first training camp were inaccurate.
The Jaguars, a team in desperate need of playmakers, snagged him in the fifth-round and listed the former Wolverines quarterback as an offensive specialist on their roster; a jack-of-all-trades performer in the mold of Antwaan Randle El—the QB Robinson passed in 2012 as the Big Ten career leader in rushing yards by a quarterback—or former Jets wildcat wonder Brad Smith.
That plan didn't work out the way the Jaguars or Robinson hoped it would. Robinson failed to immediately distinguish himself and accumulated a paltry 66 yards rushing on 20 attempts, and his only pass of the season fell incomplete. In fact, Robinson did his most damage on kickoff returns, where he had 88 yards on four returns. Robinson was hardly getting any reps anywhere early in the season, playing just 13 snaps in the first four games. That was mainly because the staff wasn't sure what to do with him.
Was he a gimmick back? Was he a return specialist? If the chips were down could he be counted on to complete a couple of passes in a row? Surpassing Tom Brady on the Michigan all-time passing yardage list didn’t hold much weight at the next level. The fact that he holds the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback (4,495) was a much larger attraction for the Jags. His 4.32 speed and nickname (“Shoelace”) just reeks of future All-Pro running back.
During Robinson’s rookie season, he had trouble fumbling out of the Wildcat, he had some brutal drops on screen passes and his accuracy throwing the ball in training camp was saucy. Robinson is an effective open-field slasher with a vicious cutback game, but there wasn't enough trust to throw him the ball. He was limited to taking a shotgun snap in the wildcat and running the ball—a throwback to single-wing formation football—but that negates the element of deception that the read-option needs.
Entering this season, Robinson was at a crossroads in his career. He was supposed to be backing up starter Toby Gerhart in the backfield. After receiving just 28 carries in the first six games, the Jaguars finally got something right and started feeding the best playmaker they have. It’s a no-brainer, but it took them a minute to figure out how they wanted to use him.
The Jaguars don’t have much to get hyped about as evidenced by Bradley’s Super Bowl-type jubilation after the 1-8 squad’s first and only win of the 2014 season—a 24-6 win over the shaky Cleveland Browns on Oct. 19th.
They put the fortunes and future of their franchise on the arm of a relatively unknown commodity in No. 1 overall pick Blake Bortles out of Central Florida. Bortles was basically an afterthought in the draft process as recently as December, a nobody compared to Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Football. The young gunner has experienced his share of growing pains, but the Jags are committed to him and expect tremendous growth in the upcoming years as the overall team improves with its leader.
In the meantime, during these lean years, where setting a foundation and a winning culture is the goal, it seems Jacksonville has also found Bortles a reliable ball-carrier; another quality building block to relieve the young general of some pressure. Robinson has game-breaker potential as evidenced by his 41-yard scamper against Miami last week and his 39-yard rip on Sunday. He’s looking like a steal in the fifth.
With all of the criticism Jacksonville’s front office has endured for its draft picks in recent years, from wasting a top-ten pick on Blain Gabbert in 2011 and then following that genius move by drafting smoked out and emotionally unstable wide receiver Justin Blackmon in 2012 (neither player is currently contributing to the team), the Jaguars might have finally pulled off a shrewd executive maneuver moving “Shoelace” to the top of the depth chart.