ASHBURN, Va. — Brian Robinson Jr.'s introduction to the NFL a year ago was humming along smoothly, with his training camp and preseason performances putting him on course to be the Washington Commanders' top running back.
Then, on a Sunday evening, that trajectory stopped in an instant. Robinson was shot twice in the right leg as part of an attempted robbery/carjacking in the city.
Robinson was hospitalized, underwent surgery and recovered so quickly he played football six weeks later, finishing his rookie season with nearly 800 yards rushing in 12 games. A full year removed from the shooting, Robinson is finally feeling himself again, and his role in Washington's new offense under Eric Bieniemy has him primed for what could be a breakout season.
"I feel night and day from like last year," Robinson said. "There wasn’t one time I felt like Brian Robinson, so that’s night and day from then to now. People should expect a lot great things to come when you compare all the things I did while I was limping around all year last year.”
Robinson, now 24, said he feels more like himself every day — free from some of the lingering issues he dealt with in his right knee and hip from the shooting.
Incredibly, the bullet that struck his knee missed all the bones and ligaments in it, allowing him the possibility of getting back on the field, but that didn't mean he was pain free.
With Antonio Gibson also on the roster, the coaching and medical staffs were patient with Robinson, putting him on the non-football injury list and ruling out a return in the first four weeks of the season. The 2022 third-round pick out of Alabama got a chance to ramp up once he made his pro debut, splitting carries with Gibson before taking over as the No. 1 back.
A bruised thigh derailed the end of his season, just after Robinson started to find a groove.
“I think he is coming in with a whole different perspective,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Last year, he was a wide-eyed rookie and went through a very traumatic situation very early and just never really got a chance to enjoy it and show his personality to who he really is. ...
"Now, folks are going to get to see who he is.”
Robinson looks to be one of the keys to Washington's offense, with unproven second-year pro Sam Howell installed as the starting quarterback and a remade line he'll need to run behind. Bieniemy likes what he has seen so far, and that goes beyond rushing.
“Not only can he run it, but he for sure can catch it — and on top of that, he does a heck of a job stepping up in protection,” Bieniemy said last week. “We want the most complete football player ... at every position to be their best. It helps tremendously when you have a player and a person like that that’s willing to do it all.”
Rivera this summer has noticed a more mature version of Robinson than a year ago, acknowledging there's still room for growth.
"He’s still learning,” Rivera said. “But there’s a lot of promise. There’s a lot of excitement right now.”
Robinson said he can do anything in the playbook, including catching the ball out of the backfield. He considers the next step in his progression to be breaking off game-changing runs of 50-plus yards and getting into the end zone after just two touchdowns last season.
"I just don’t want to be one-dimensional and I don’t want to be just a power back: I want to be able to run routes, run down the field, catch the ball with soft hands and continue to grow my game,” Robinson said. “(There are) no limits on what I can do.”