Antonio Gibson was lined up in the shotgun with he took the ensuing handoff and sprinted towards the sideline.
As he followed his blockers and turned upfield, Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson made a last ditch diving effort to bring Gibson down for a loss. Gibson took a stutter step, weaved through players and scampered forward for a 22-yard gain.
Not bad for a running back who has been battling turf toe for the better part of three weeks.
Gibson, Washington's leading rusher, has been sidelined since the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The recovery has been a slow process, but with Gibson's toe being so vital to his ability to make cuts and avoid defenders, the team wanted to give him as much time to heal as possible. The caution paid off, because head coach Ron Rivera said Gibson was "excellent" in his return against the Carolina Panthers.
"He still wasn't completely there in terms of being 100 percent," Rivera said, "but what we got from him was pretty doggone good."
The biggest things Rivera wanted to see from Gibson in the weeks before the Panthers game were his ability to plant and cut off his foot. Although his first run was only a two-yard gain, he still showed those skills by taking a handoff to the right, juking to the left and bursting forward. He also showed his power by surging forward for five- and seven-yard gains on his next two runs.
"That's probably the biggest thing you need to see more so than anything else," Rivera said. "Going forward, a straight line, it really doesn't seem to affect him. His quickness and speed are there, but it's being able to have a quick foot, plant it and go off of it."
Gibson slowly improved as the game went on; he opened up Washington's third drive with six- and 13-yard rushes and showed the same vision and decision-making that he developed throughout the course of the season. By the time the first quarter was over, Gibson had already rushed for 45 yards on eight carries.
There were still some moments where Gibson showed he was not at full strength. He took a two-yard loss on a swing pass when he tried to spin away from a defender but took several steps before stopping. He also could not cleanly run a route on Washington's next drive, which resulted in an incompletion, and he took a six-yard loss in the third quarter. But his 22-yard run also set the offense up at the 47-yard line, which helped the unit get in position to score a 48-yard field goal before halftime.
Washington eventually had to abandon the running game once it found itself down, 20-3, with time slipping away, but Rivera thought Gibson "came out pretty good." One of Rivera's tests for evaluating a player's health is seeing how they feel the following morning, and based on what he saw Monday, he sounded pleased with the running back's progress.
"It looked like he didn't have too much of a limp to that walk," Rivera said. "I'm pretty optimistic that he didn't do anything extra to that toe. Plus, he's got a couple extra days before he does anything Wednesday."
It is a good sign that Gibson seems to have recovered from his turf toe injury, because Washington could use him for its Week 17 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, which will air on NBC's Sunday Night Football since Washington can clinch the NFC East with a win.
Gibson had nine rushes for 36 yards in the Week 1 game against the Eagles. Since then, he has averaged nearly 11 carries and 57 yards per game and became Washington's best scoring option with 11 touchdowns. That does not even account for his ability as a pass-catcher out of the backfield with 241 receiving yards.
Gibson's game against the Panthers was a positive step, but the team will likely still be cautious with such a pivotal game coming up. (You can monitor Gibson's heath status throughout the week, HERE.) If Washington wants to win the division for the first time since 2015, it will need Gibson as healthy as possible so he can get close to where was before his injury.
"He's got the skillset that really hasn't been developed," Rivera said after Gibson's three-touchdown performance against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. "As you watch him and watch what [running backs coach] Randy [Jordan] and [coaching assistant] [Jennifer] King have done with him, you feel really good about that. You know that, especially with the coaching he's gotten, he's starting to show the signs of development and growth that we've been looking for."