JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson continues to methodically work through his return from a torn Achilles in his left leg, head coach Doug Pederson said he still expects Robinson to be cleared to play in the Sept. 11 season opener at the Washington Commanders.
But don’t expect anything close to a full workload for Robinson in Week 1.
“I don’t think you go full steam ahead. I think you gradually increase his reps,” Pederson said. “You don’t want to stress his body [in practice], but at the same time, he needs to get enough work where he’s possibly ready to go for Washington, if that’s the case."
When Robinson eventually gets to the point where he won’t be limited -- whether it’s in September or early October -- the question then becomes: How are the Jaguars going to divide the running back workload between Robinson and Travis Etienne Jr.?
The Jaguars do have a plan … they’re just not willing to say what it is, yet.
“We have a vision for what we hope it is,” offensive coordinator Press Taylor said. “You kind of always envision what you're going to do when everybody's healthy, but until we get to that point and we see everybody in there and everybody is available on game day, then you kind of just have to go with what you have in that particular availability for that game."
To get an idea of the way the Robinson-Etienne breakdown could potentially look in 2022, it helps to look at the way Pederson used his running backs during his five seasons as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles (2016-20).
The Eagles did have lead backs -- Ryan Matthews, LeGarrette Blount, Josh Adams and Miles Sanders -- but no one carried the ball more than 179 times in a season (Sanders in 2019). Twice Pederson had three backs with 70 or more carries in a season (2016 and 2017) and twice he had running backs finished third on the team in receptions (2016 and 2019).
Sanders is the only back he had that topped 800 yards rushing in a season, which he did in 2019 and 2020.
So if that’s the philosophy Pederson is bringing to Jacksonville, it’s probably safe to assume that Robinson won’t match the 240 carries he had as a rookie, and Etienne’s potential workload could look something like Darren Sproles’ output in 2016: 94 rushes and 52 catches.
The Jaguars have to get Robinson back fully, first, and they're being careful.
Robinson spent most of training camp working off to the side and participating only in individual drills, but he did some team work for the first time last week while wearing a red non-contact jersey. He didn’t play in Saturday’s preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and is likely to be limited in joint practices with the Atlanta Falcons later this week. He won’t play against the Falcons in the preseason finale on Saturday, either.
“It is tricky with the type of injury that he had," Pederson said. "I’ve been around offensive lineman that have had the same injury that have bounced back fast, and other guys it takes a little time, but I think in his case, he’s on track, but again, we have to be smart as a staff, medically, coaches, to make sure we don’t have any setbacks at this time.”
Etienne, who missed his rookie season with a Lisfranc injury, has been the No. 1 back in training camp in Robinson’s absence. He’ll get the majority of the work early in the season -- with some help from 2022 fifth-round pick Snoop Conner -- until the Jaguars are ready for Robinson to get a full workload.
Jaguars drafted Etienne No. 25 overall in 2021 to add explosiveness to an offense that was pretty pedestrian in 2020. The Jaguars were last in the NFL with 16 combined rushes of 20 or more yards and pass plays of 30 or more yards, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Etienne was one of the most explosive players in the country during his four-year career at Clemson. He led all players in the NCAA with 55 runs of 20-plus yards from 2017 to 2020, rushing for 2,053 yards and 21 touchdowns -- averaging 37.3 yards per rush on those big plays. Etienne also had six receptions of 30-plus yards, giving him 61 explosive plays.
When Etienne went down with his foot injury during a preseason game against New Orleans on Aug. 23 last season, it took away the Jaguars’ only big-play threat. Without him the Jaguars were actually worse last season than 2020 -- 15 explosive plays (runs of 20 or more yards, receptions of 30 or more yards), one fewer than they had in 2020 despite playing an additional game -- and the offense averaged a league-worst 13.8 points per game.
Robinson, who has run for 1,837 yards (4.5 per carry) in his two seasons, is a capable receiver -- 80 catches for 566 yards -- but he isn’t the big-play threat that Etienne is. Robinson had just nine combined runs of 20-plus yards and receptions of 30-plus yards in 2020-2021.
Taylor said the plan for Etienne and Robinson will eventually get sorted out when Robinson is finally cleared for a full workload, whenever that is. Right now they're working on getting him back in some capacity.
"Whenever he's full go, that means he can play every single snap, then we'll roll there," Taylor said. "If they tell us he needs to be on a pitch count, then that's how we'll operate as we go."