Chris Thompson's first two years in the NFL didn't go as planned, but his patience has paid off in his evolution as Washington's third-down running back.
Chris Thompson is 26 years old. He's only been in the NFL for four seasons. Yet here he is – the elder statesman among six running backs on the Washington Redskins.
You could say the other running backs will be looking up to Thompson, but at 5-foot-8, well, he's among the shortest players on the Redskins roster – tied with third-year receiver Jamison Crowder and rookie linebacker Nico Marley.
Height jokes aside, Thompson is embracing his role as the old head among Redskins running backs.
"It's big for me," Thompson said. "These guys look up to me, they're asking me all of the questions like I'm the coach, so it puts pressure on me to know this offense, the ins and outs of it, because, you know, all the time they don't want to go to Coach [Randy] Jordan and ask him certain things. So, you know, I'm just continually, everyday, just trying to be that leader.
"It's not only in the meeting rooms it's on the field too, you know, I have to be a guy that limits my mistakes out here on the field, you know, I have to give that maximum effort every single play so they know how to practice, they know how to do it. You know, they look at everything I do, so, you know, I have to be the one to set that great example for them."
Beyond being a, "great human, person," as head coach Jay Gruden referred to Thompson Wednesday, the younger Redskins running backs – among them second-year back Rob Kelley, who ran for 704 yards as a rookie last season – can learn from Thompson's story.
Thirty-nine yards. That was all Thompson gained from scrimmage through two seasons as a Redskins running back. He didn't gain any his rookie season in 2013 after being drafted in the fifth round out of Florida State. However, after that season, Gruden took over and things changed – for the better.
"[Gruden] had that talk with me as soon as I got here," Thompson said. "He just told me he was going to stick with me and I was his guy and he trusted in me and my ability."
But Thompson had to trust Gruden, too. In his second season – Gruden's first as Redskins head coach – Thompson played in just two games. For a majority of the season, he was a member of the Redskins practice squad.
In 2015, Gruden's vision for Thompson became clearer. He played in 13 games, totaling 456 yards from scrimmage as the team's third down back. He caught as many passes (35) as he had rushing attempts. He caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in the Redskins' NFC East-clinching victory over the Eagles. Two weeks later in the playoffs against Green Bay, he caught eight passes for 89 yards.
The creative offensive mind of Gruden had himself a weapon, and a weapon that was willing to work.
"He is a joy to be around, he works extremely hard, he cares about the details," Gruden said Wednesday about Thompson. "To be in the position he is in, a third-down back, it's a very important position. He has got to be able to pick up linebackers blitzing and sometimes he is stuck on a 295-pound defensive tackle, sometimes blocking a defensive end and he has to get open against a linebacker, safety in pass routes."
In 2017, for the first time, Thompson played in all 16 games, and he didn't disappoint. Despite playing in less than half the team's offensive snaps for the season, he totaled 705 total yards from scrimmage (356 on the ground, 349 through the air).
And when the ball wasn't in his hands, he often was still effective. As Gruden pointed out, Thompson can block with the best of them.
For the self-aware Thompson, he understands his role as a leader among the Redskins backfield. He also understands he may not have been in this position without Gruden. Thompson says that Gruden told him to be patient and trust what Gruden had planned. Thompson did just that, and it's paid off.
"You know, I spent my first year with him as head coach on practice squad and, you know, it was rough for me, and I didn't understand, I didn't understand why." Thompson said. "I thought I had a pretty good preseason, but that taught me a whole lot and I grew in that season to become the player and the man I am now.
"It was just all part of my journey, and like I said before, Coach Gruden saw something, and I'm just really appreciative of that."