Washington Commanders can finally unleash the beast within Antonio Gibson

The Commanders look set to start using Antonio Gibson the right way in 2023.

Antonio Gibson
Antonio Gibson / Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Could the presence of Eric Bieniemy be the spark that propels running back Antonio Gibson to a bounce-back campaign in 2023?

Antonio Gibson's past as a wide receiver in college has largely been consigned to history since he was selected in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Washington Commanders. That's about to alter significantly thanks to the arrival of Eric Bieniemy as offensive coordinator.

Bieniemy knows how to get running backs involved in the passing game from his days with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Gibson is keen to embrace that role. He told London Fletcher and Fred Smoot he's "excited" to tap into the skills needed at his old position heading into a contract year.

"Just lining up out wide, like you said. I haven't shown my position. I feel the same way. Every year we talk about it, but it hasn't happened."

Antonio Gibson via Commanders.com

Gibson's reference to not previously getting enough chances as a pass-catcher is a telling indictment of Bieniemy's predecessor Scott Turner. The latter rarely embraced the running back's dual-threat skills and a number of playmakers at his disposal.

Fortunately, that pattern looks set to change for the better under Bieniemy.

Positionless football key to Commanders' offense

Positionless football was a buzz phrase when Bieniemy helped Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid design plays. It's about skill players gashing defenses in multiple ways.

It was common for Kansas City's wide receivers to align in the backfield and take carries. All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce sometimes did the same or played quarterback in Wildcat looks.

This flexible blueprint is available to Bieniemy with the Commanders, thanks to a roster that boasts wide receivers able to play running back (Curtis Samuel), a runner who can play wideout (Gibson), and tight ends who can play some quarterback (Logan Thomas).

Unleashing a diverse range of talents demands a shape-shifting system featuring changing formations and a ton of movement. Those are Bieniemy's calling cards, with Sam Fortier of The Washington Post detailing how often the former Chiefs' offensive coordinator altered the picture his unit showed defenses.

Gibson's previously noted how players are moving around more often since Bieniemy arrived.

Freeing Gibson's inner wide receiver in a way Turner never did should be Bieniemy's first step toward creating the same dynamic with the Commanders.

Commanders haven't used Antonio Gibson's full skills

Turner was reluctant to move Gibson out of the backfield. This became a frustrating trend that began during the player's rookie year, as numbers from Fantasy Life's Ian Hartitz show.

Gibson finished 2020 with just 36 catches from a mere 44 targets. Granted, J.D. McKissic was around to handle most of the pass-catching chores, but this was still more about restricting talent than easing the workload of Washington's RB1.

Things hardly improved in 2021, when Gibson remained limited to catching the ball out of the backfield, per stats from Zareh Kantzabedian of Football Guys.

Gibson continued to be overlooked in the passing game during 2022, when he averaged just 3.9 targets per game, according to Player Profiler. Bieniemy must up those numbers or risk wasting an obvious matchup advantage.

Antonio Gibson at receiver gives Commanders a mismatch

Offense essentially boils down to crafting matchup advantages. Sometimes those advantages are borne from a difference in talent. Think Terry McLaurin vs. almost any defensive back in the NFL.

Other times, matchups advantages are schemed via movement and personnel. Gibson falls into this category.

At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he's a size mismatch against the majority of cornerbacks in the league. Defenses moving safeties or linebackers out wide to cover Gibson would risk tipping their hand about coverage and pressure looks.

There are multiple advantages to aligning Gibson closer to the sideline, but Bieniemy can still fashion big plays for No. 24 out of the backfield. Look at this touchdown catch and run from Chiefs' RB Jerick McKinnon against the Houston Texans last season, highlighted by Nate Tice of The Athletic.

As Tice noted, the Chiefs used their own personnel grouping to dictate which players the Texans put onto the field. Now imagine the Commanders running this play with Samuel motioning into the backfield, the way Kadarius Toney (19) did here.

Bieniemy would still have Thomas split out on one side, while McLaurin occupies the perimeter on the other. Maybe John Bates takes the in-line tight-end role occupied here by Noah Gray (83).

Having the primary receivers run coverage infield would let Gibson sneak to the outside for an easy six. Calling his number on plays like this, as well as letting him align outside, will force defenses to draw focus away from go-to receivers McLaurin and Jahan Dotson.

The combination of scheme and talent means Bieniemy can finally unlock the full potential of a player the Commanders have so far used at less than full capacity. That's great news for everybody.