You never know sometimes the value of seemingly valueless moments — like those back in the early days of Chris Thompson’s and Kirk Cousins‘ Washington Redskins careers, when they were both Mike Shanahan guys.
The two of them were tasked with the job of being on the scout team in those early days — getting the real football team ready to play each week.
It was there, according to Thompson, that the relationship between he and his quarterback began building the relationship that now has developed into the Redskins’ most reliable — and most productive — offensive connection.
Last Sunday against the Rams, Thompson had three carries, with an explosion of 77 yards and two touchdowns, while catching three passes for 29 yards, leading Washington to a 27-20 win.
The week before in a 30-17 loss to Philadelphia, Thompson caught four passes for 52 yards, including one remarkable 29 yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
The franchise, coming off his breakout season last year — 68 carries for 356 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and catching 49 passes for 349 yards — gave Thompson a two-year contract extension two weeks ago.
He has become Cousins‘ security blanked, the place where the quarterback goes for help when the offense is struggling.
“I think the connection just stems back from when I wasn’t really involved in the offense my first couple of years,” the 26-year-old Thompson told me in our conversation on a recent episode of my “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast. “We would be on the same scout team together, giving looks to our defense to get them ready for upcoming games.”
“Once I got on the active roster and really started playing this third down role, it was more of us working together and having that trust thing over these last few years,” he said.
“I’ve been able to build that level of trust and he has no doubt that whenever he calls my name I can get the job done, Thompson said. “He trusts me to make those plays, and I don’t want to let my guys down so I try to do everything that I can to make those big plays.”
Those “big plays” have pretty much been most of the Redskins offense so far this season. So there is the temptation to use the 5-foot-8, 195 pound running back much more than as a third-down back.
“He’s so important to us on third down we just have to be careful,” coach Jay Gruden told reporters. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world. We don’t want him to get 20-25 carries a game and get a lot of pounding on that body. He’s definitely needed in pass protection and the routes and all that stuff on third down and red zone. So we’ll try to expand his role a little bit, but we don’t want to go too crazy with him.”
This was the struggle Joe Gibbs went through when he figured out what he had in Brian Mitchell — a playmaker who could be used in many roles.
Thompson knows his coaching staff’s dilemma. “I think the coaches think about that, how much can I use this guy because he can do so many things,” he told me.
But Thompson said he believes in Gruden, and however the coach decides to use him. “My main focus is whatever opportunities I get to make the best of them,” he said. “Coach Gruden and the staff, I know they’re going to make the right decisions, so I don’t have any doubt about what the game plan for me may be week to week.
“I know after being in this league for four years going into my fifth year my role is to be one of those guys to come in on third down or maybe second and long or whatever and make plays,” Thompson said. “I have to be a guy that comes in for one play, and if I need a first down I have to make it happen right then.
“My focus is when I step on the field, make a big play,” he said. “I may not get back into the game for another five or seven plays or whatever but when I get that one shot just make a play. The more plays I make the more I help, because it adds another element to our offense, having a good pass catching running back and a guy who could also run the ball well. When I get the ball my focus is to get at least 5 yards every time I touch the ball.”
His trust in Gruden, like Cousins, came from those early days when he wasn’t even on the active roster. “I spent that first year Jay was head coach on the practice squad,” Thompson said. “He would sit down and tell me, ‘You’re my guy. I just need you to trust me. I know this is going to be hard being on the practice squad. You’re going to have to be patient with me. I want you to continue to work hard and trust me. You’re part of a bigger picture here.’ It was hard, but I trusted him.
“Now, looking back on those years, I really trust him (Gruden) now,” Thompson said. “Playing for a guy like that, it’s easy to put my body on the line every single day, every single play for him. I enjoy everything about Coach Gruden, and it all stems from those conversations.”
Practice squads, scout teams — sometimes where the foundation for future NFL Sunday success is built
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.
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