JACKSONVILLE – This is a real feel-good story.
It is that way because the subject is a guy you can feel good about, and also because the story is about a Jaguars player you didn't expect to be all that good midway through the 2014 season.
The feature back in an NFL offense …
And more than that, the feature back in a pretty good running offense …
Don't look now, but that's what Denard Robinson has become. He may even be on his way to being a bona fide NFL star – as opposed to a former college star trying to find a niche in the NFL. All of that is something few believed possible before this season, or even three weeks ago.
But here's the thing about Robinson. He believed. Even last year, when he was fumbling, struggling to catch passes, struggling to learn a whole bunch of positions. When he was trying to transition from college star quarterback to a player good enough to contribute somewhere, anywhere, in the NFL, he believed.
Robinson was asked this week if sometime last season – maybe deep, deep down – he wondered.
Yeah, Robinson said there was a little of that.
"There were some days I said, 'All right, man, I don't know …''' he admitted.
But those thoughts were minimal. Mostly, he persevered. He spent time praying, trusting that his faith could help him through anything he faced. He also continued to work and to believe he could be a running back … a real NFL running back.
"I had confidence I could play," he said.
Robinson believed in himself and that counts a great deal. In the NFL, though, it helps when someone else believes in you, and two key decision makers do.
One was Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley, and as significant was Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell.
Caldwell liked Robinson from when he first saw him. This was when Caldwell was the Atlanta Falcons' Director of Player Personnel. Caldwell kept liking him, kept being intrigued by his passion for football, by how loved he was by his University of Michigan teammates – and, of course, by his speed and playmaking ability. When Caldwell drafted Robinson in Round 5 of the 2013 NFL Draft, it prompted a phone call from his former boss, Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff.
"I knew you were going to end up getting him at some point in time," Dimitroff said.
Caldwell had gotten him, but it wasn't evident at first just what it was Caldwell had. Robinson struggled as a rookie. The Jaguars listed him as an offensive weapon, trying him on returns, wide receiver, running back, even at Wildcat quarterback on occasion. Robinson spent his rookie offseason trying to learn those spots, all the while dealing with a nerve injury to his elbow that made it difficult to close his hand – therefore difficult to grasp a football correctly.
Caldwell and the Jaguars believed.
"We knew he could be dangerous with the ball in his hands," Caldwell said. "We just weren't sure how we were going to get it to him. We finally settled that the easiest way was just handing it off."
Robinson said Caldwell and Bradley never expressed anything but faith in him.
"When you have someone you trust and they know what you can do … that helped me," Robinson said. "They had confidence in me, and that motivates you a little more. If they believe in me, I want to do it for them. That's one thing I always believe in."
The result is a player who now matters very much in the Jaguars' offense. It didn't happen immediately. The Jaguars late last season moved Robinson to running back, and he settled there. He showed improvement in the offseason and preseason, and his ball security issues reduced dramatically as the nerve damage improved. But even as late as Week 2 against Washington this season, he got no carries. Then, with Toby Gerhart struggling with production and injury, the Jaguars continually looked for the right combination at running back.
At Tennessee on October 19, Robinson rushed for 22 yards on five carries. The following week against Cleveland, he got his first start as the feature back. He rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. This past week against Miami, another start: 18 carries and 108 yards.
What changed? Caldwell said some of it was Robinson's determination. He has added 20 pounds in a little more than a year and a half, with more room to grow. He also focused on fumbles in the offseason, carrying a football with him for long periods for emphasis. As much as anything, Caldwell said Robinson personifies the reality that the NFL is very much a developmental league.
"We had this conversation today internally," Caldwell said Wednesday afternoon. "Players coming out of college … they all mature at different rates. In the NFL, we want instant gratification as rookies and we want the rookie season to define their careers.
"It's not always the case and it's seldom the case."
It sure wasn't the case for Robinson, and here's also a very real chance that his on field production could make him not only one of the Jaguars' best-known players, but perhaps their latest true star.
But that's a topic for a future date. For now, Robinson is the Jaguars' feature back and there's little question he's the feel-good story of the first half of the season.
Even if you couldn't have imagined it three weeks ago.