JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. had a two-word reaction when coach Bernie Parmalee told him he was starting shortly before taking the field last Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
The news caught Etienne off guard because James Robinson had started every game, and he wasn’t as loose as he needed to be. That, he believes, is why he didn’t score when he broke a long run on his second carry.
“I feel like I was ready, but if I would have known [he was starting] I probably would’ve got a little more sweat earlier in the pregame,” Etienne said. “I don’t feel like I was quite ready to break that long run. I feel like, for me, what makes me special is to be able to create those turns and touchdowns.
“Next time I get that opportunity I definitely have to nail it.”
Getting more opportunities isn’t going to be a problem for Etienne. He’s coming off the two best performances of his career, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a breakout game -- and scores his first touchdown. Even though he has out-performed Robinson by a significant margin the last two weeks it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s now the Jaguars’ RB1.
“Sometimes it just depends on what the first play is going to be, who the personnel is going to be and stuff like that,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “It’s good to keep those guys thinking and guessing. You never know. You’ve got to be ready.”
Etienne had 222 yards (157 rushing) on 25 touches in the Jaguars’ losses to the Houston Texans and Colts, which works out to 8.9 yards per touch. Robinson had 94 yards (81 rushing) on 25 touches but is averaging just 3.8 yards per touch.
One of the reasons the Jaguars drafted Etienne No. 25 overall in 2021 was because of his ability to create big plays, which he did pretty regularly in his four years at Clemson. He led the NCAA with 61 combined runs of 20 or more yards and receptions of 30 or more yards from 2017-20. In the last two weeks Etienne, who missed his rookie season with a Lisfranc injury, has broken off runs of 30 and 48 yards.
Robinson’s longest run over that span is 14 yards.
“For me, it’s just going out there and being the best player I can be each and every week,” Etienne said. “With the opportunities I get, I have to make the most of them. I feel like I left a little bit out there on the field and it’s on me to be better.”
Robinson is still the Jaguars’ leading rusher (340 yards), but Etienne (301 yards) has closed the gap over the past two weeks and is averaging more than a yard better per carry (5.6 to 4.2), though he has 27 fewer carries.
Pederson's history with running backs during his five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles (2016-20) speaks to the similar workload of Robinson and Etienne. No back carried the ball more than 179 times in a season (Miles Sanders in 2019) and only twice had a back topped 800 yards rushing in a season (Sanders in 2019 and 2020).
Whichever back was more effective at the time or created a better matchup was the one that got more work, and Pederson has continued to use that approach with the Jaguars.
On Sunday, the Jaguars host the New York Giants (1 ET, FOX), whose rush defense ranks 28th in the NFL (144.8 yards per game allowed). This could allow Robinson or Etienne a great opportunity to be difference-makers.
“It’s either the hot hand or it’s just the way the plays are being called, who’s in the game,” Pederson said. “It’s not against one back or the other.”