After not being selected in this year's NFL Draft, a lot has happened for rookie running back Robert Kelley, including his first start Sunday against the Bengals in which he was a key contributor to Washington's big offensive day.
There were plenty of firsts for rookie Robert Kelley on Sunday that he couldn't have expected after going undrafted earlier this year. There was his first NFL start already – just eight weeks into the season. He ran for 21 times for 87 yards and his first career rushing touchdown. How about doing it all in front of more than 84,000 people at the legendary Wembley Stadium in London?
"It's crazy," Kelley said.
In what was all in all a very odd weekend for the Redskins, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, adjusting to the time change, playing to a wildly entertaining 27-27 tie with the Cincinnati Bengals, Kelley's experience had some extra meaning. This was his first NFL start, and he played a vital role in the game.
With starting running back Matt Jones out due to injury, the Redskins had no issue turning over the starting duties to Kelley, who rewarded the coaching staff's trust. He was a key contributor on Washington's game-opening 15-play, 80-yard drive – the longest opening drive of the season by the Redskins – that ended with Kelley's first career touchdown, a four-yard rushing score.
"I think he ran the ball hard," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. "I think he was a little bit impatient on some cuts, but for the most part he runs hard. I liked the way he ran. He protected the ball, had some big runs there. That big one in overtime was a huge run to get us down into field goal range. I think he had a couple opportunities to pick up some blitzes, did a good job, so I thought he played well."
With a national audience tuning into the morning game in London, many were able to see what this guy "Fat Rob" was all about. Kelley, who earned the nickname after overindulging in Popeyes leading up to his senior year at Tulane, continued to grab the attention of viewers with his ability to keep his powerful legs moving.
"[Cincinnati] was a tough, hard-nosed defense," Kelley said. "Some guys came out hitting so I had to hit back. That's what it was.
"It makes me feel good that I can go out and play with those guys. It's the NFL. It's the elite of the elite so it feels good going out and playing with them."
Despite recording just 29 yards on 10 carries in the first half, the Redskins went back to Kelley in the second half and were rewarded. On Kelley's next 11 carries he gained 58 yards – an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
"He just kept going forward, man," Redskins offensive tackle Trent Williams said. "He's one of those guys that's tough to bring down, going to run through arm tackles, going to give you second, third, fourth, fifth efforts. He's going to continue to keep the power moving. I'm certainly impressed by that. Me as a lineman to feel that kind of power, I've got to let my guy go and start to try to help clear it off, and you notice he's still going. I think that shows a lot of toughness out of him, that he continued to just pound the rock like that."
For those who have followed the Redskins closely, perhaps Sunday's performance by Kelley wasn't a surprise. The rookie was Washington's most consistent running back in the preseason, gaining 5.2 yards per carry on 38 tries. His involvement with the offense in the regular season has been slow, but steady. His 45-yard run against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6 was part of a 59-yard day. He then caught his first career touchdown pass against the Detroit Lions last week.
Still, Kelley had never touched the ball more than five times in an NFL game. On Sunday, he touched it 21 times and was targeted twice in the passing game without a catch. Kelley acknowledged that Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins played a big role in helping him remain calm throughout his whirlwind of a Sunday in England, saying that Cousins is a "real leader and I love that about him."
Cousins, however, wasn't too surprised. He echoed what many of Kelley's teammates said after the game. Kelley's performance wasn't a surprise, it was expected.
"I had a front row seat every time I hand the ball off to watch him read the holes and make the cuts and attack and keep his shoulders downhill and take on contact," Cousins said. "I was very pleased with the way he ran the football, the toughness he showed, the way he competed, the way he fought for extra yards. I enjoyed the front row seat that I had today to watch him run."