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The Burden of Being Bijan Robinson

Life as a modern-day NFL running back isn’t easy. The Atlanta Falcons rookie’s up-and-down season illustrates just how confounding playing the position can be. But Robinson’s positionless approach could be the future. “He’s become, I believe, the new prototype,” says LaDainian Tomlinson.

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Bijan Robinson almost always has a football in his hands. It’s his comfort, his connection to home. The moment practice ends at the Atlanta Falcons facility, he rushes to the on-site barber, squeezing in a quick haircut. He smiles, on this December afternoon, recalling a story passed down by his family: He carried a football with him to his first haircut. Unable to sit still, 1-year-old Bijan kept finding targets in the barbershop. “I was throwing the football with everybody I saw,” he says.

Robinson even regularly sneaked his football into church as a young boy, deviating from his duties as a drummer for the congregation. “Bijan! Put down that football!” his grandparents Cleo and Gerri Robinson would say. One day, Pastor Joseph Ellis, a family friend, intervened. For months, he saw the glow in little Bijan’s eyes, the way he cradled the ball like it was a newborn.

“Leave him alone,” Ellis said. “He cannot help himself. It’s just in him.”

Robinson, the Falcons’ 5-foot-11, 215-pound star rookie running back, selected with the eighth pick in last spring’s draft, knew from a young age that he always wanted to play football. He’d make moves on invisible defenders through the grocery store aisles. Football seized him wholly, quickly, the way only first love can. “I knew that was what I was supposed to do,” Robinson says.

But he started to realize, the more he studied the game, that whatever was in him would have to manifest differently than it had for previous generations of backs. His coaches and mentors, from childhood to his teenage years to his college years at Texas, had the foresight to prepare him for the way the position was evolving.

He knew he couldn’t just rely on his supernatural speed. He had to not just run at an elite level, but block and catch as well. Become more versatile. “Positionless,” Robinson says. “When you’re truly a positionless player, then you’re the most effective player on the field.”

He knew that would not only preserve his body and lengthen his career, but also make him the best at his craft. He sees the game that way, a skill set to learn. To continually perfect. Robinson also understood the short shelf life for running backs; many are pounded into the ground, suffering from injuries that prematurely end their careers. Running backs of Robinson’s generation are now viewed as replaceable—less valued than they once were in terms of both compensation and status. The days of a running back getting 30 carries, wearing down an opponent through sheer brute force, are over.

Some say that Robinson, a player with all the tools and with a special ability to dance around opponents as if he were a basketball player weaving his way to the hoop, could be the future of a dying position. Robinson doesn’t necessarily think the position is disappearing, but he does see it transforming into something new. “The position’s getting away from the one-dimensional type of running back,” Robinson says. “You have to catch the ball at the backfield now; you have to be able to run the ball on any down. You can’t just be a first- and second-down back. … You’ve got to be able to expand your skill set, make people miss.”

Robinson has done just that, giving a tantalizing glimpse of a decorated career that is only beginning and a window into what makes the modern running back position so confounding. It’s a complex landscape for one of the game’s most visible positions, even for a running back as touted and successful as Robinson. He was perhaps the most hyped running back prospect since Giants RB Saquon Barkley for a reason. Starring for the Texas Longhorns from 2020 to 2023, he was a unanimous All-American and a winner of the Doak Award, given to the top collegiate running back.

Tashard Choice, Texas’s running backs coach, remembers a conversation with Robinson during his junior season with the Longhorns. Choice, who played running back in the NFL for six seasons, told Robinson: “Bijan, you’ve got to change the position. I know you didn’t ask for it, but to whom much is given, much is required. You got to change it to where the running back is not a person they see running the ball. They got to look at you as a playmaker.”

Yet Robinson came into the NFL at a strange time for running backs. The Falcons believed in him enough to use a very high pick on him, which is rare for a running back these days.

But given the way the position has evolved and how its value has shifted around the league, rushing for a ton of yards in college wasn’t a guarantee that he’d make millions upon millions of dollars in the NFL.

Choice also brought up the economic realities of the position, how wages have stagnated for most backs. “I would show him [49ers RB] Christian McCaffrey and [Saints RB] Alvin Kamara,” Choice says. “And I’m saying, ‘Look, you see the money they get paid?’ Or, ‘Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott, then Cowboys RB] got paid this, and now look at him. They about to release him and let him go.’” Most recently, the Colts held out as long as possible in paying franchise back Jonathan Taylor, further bringing the question of the position’s worth into the national spotlight.

But Robinson has a chance to shift that conversation and maybe even redefine the position for the next generation. “He’s become, I believe, the new prototype,” says Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. “People are going to say, ‘We’re looking for the next Bijan Robinson because of all the things that he provides for an offense.’”

Tomlinson is a friend of Bijan’s and has given him advice since college, thanks to an introduction by Choice. “I think he’s headed to be one of the all-time greats,” Tomlinson says. There have been other players before Robinson with similarly versatile skill sets, but the Falcons rookie has a chance to further that trend even more, given his propensity to create mismatches on the field. “The NFL is a matchup game now,” Tomlinson says. “And the more you can do, the better your value will be, but also the more teams will be able to utilize the skill set that someone like Bijan has because he creates such a mismatch on people.”

Tomlinson understands it’s a process. He came into the league with similar pressures, having been drafted fifth in 2001 after a historic college career. He knows that life for an NFL rookie—especially as a running back, especially one as hyped as Robinson—can be difficult. Robinson has learned that lesson firsthand.

For Bijan, it’s been an unpredictable ride. At this point in his life, he doesn’t always have the ball in his hands. He’s had flashes of brilliance. Moments of inexperience. Lots of touches. Few touches. Confusing usage in a lackluster offense. He is committed to his coaches and teammates, devoted to making his team better. But how does Robinson navigate it all? And what does it tell us about being a modern running back in the NFL?

The biggest lesson he’s learned as a rookie? “Patience,” Robinson says. “It’s the hardest lesson.”

Entering this season with enormous pressure and expectations, Robinson has had to adjust quickly. He’s had to learn a new system, a new way of playing. A quicker game. The struggling Falcons, sitting at 7-8 but only one game back of the NFC South lead, are still trying to figure themselves out.

Near the beginning of the season, many fans felt Robinson wasn’t being used as much as he should have been for someone drafted so high. The team’s prized rookie was barely getting any touches. Atlanta had shown glimmers of enough potential to possibly make the playoffs, too, snapping a three-game losing streak with a 24-15 Week 12 win over the rival Saints. Robinson led the way with 123 total yards and two touchdowns in that game. “We’re just really playing for each other as brothers,” he told his mother, LaMore Sauls, afterward. Robinson says he felt like things were finally clicking. Finally headed in the right direction.

But Atlanta struggled in Week 15, dropping an ugly 9-7 decision to the league-worst Panthers. It was a gutting loss, one that raised questions about the Falcons’ future. Robinson, whose childhood nickname was “Smiley,” has tried to stay positive amid this season’s ups and downs.

Against the Panthers two weeks ago, he had only seven carries for 11 yards and a 3-yard catch. But one tough week isn’t indicative of a running back’s value in the modern NFL. Last Sunday, he led the Falcons in both rushing and receiving yards, helping to fuel a 29-10 win against the Colts and keep Atlanta’s playoff hopes alive.

There is a brightness to Bijan, an upbeat disposition that many find infectious. He trusts in the plan his coaches have laid out for him and trusts that he’ll find his flow, even if earlier on in the season, he’d ask himself: “Could it just happen right now?”

Robinson hasn’t asked his coaches why he wasn’t receiving the ball more or gotten upset about touches. He’s appreciated the opportunities he has gotten. “It was never frustrating for me because I knew the timing was going to happen whenever it did,” Robinson says. He’s focused on a mantra that Michael Pitre, the Falcons running back coach, often says to him: “This is your own race. Run at your pace.” Pitre knows how critics and social media can distract a rookie from focusing on what matters. “That’s what we continued to try to drive home to him: He doesn’t need to be who people think he needs to be. He just needs to be Bijan Robinson,” Pitre says.

Tomlinson very much believes that Robinson is on the right path. In a sense, he paved the way for Robinson. Sure, he led the NFL in rushing twice and had eight 1,000-yard seasons. But he also had a season with 100 catches and averaged almost 60 receptions per season.

“I really believe Bijan doesn’t even know the impact that he’s going to have in 10 or 12 years,” Tomlinson says. “Like, he’s so locked in right now. His head is spinning. He’s like, ‘Man, I want more. I think I can do more, but I understand why I’m being utilized this way’ because he’s in the thick of that. He doesn’t understand that he is changing the generation of players coming behind him.”

Robinson is an old soul. Patience comes faster to him than maybe it does to others his age. He possesses the maturity and perspective of a veteran and the unbridled curiosity of a kid. He never reads interviews after he does them; he’s hardly on social media. “He’s always standing on humble ground,” says Stan Drayton, who coached Robinson at Texas as the Longhorns’ associate head coach and run game coordinator. “He does have high expectations for himself, but never once does he take complete credit.” He is a person of faith. Joy is at the center of the way he plays, the way he lives.

“Whenever you lose the joy of something,” Robinson says, “then you are uninterested and don’t want to do it anymore.” Sometimes during games, he flashes a deceptive smile. “Humbly and respectfully, I’m trying to destroy you,” Robinson says. “I’m not one to go out there and talk smack, but I’m going to get up and I’m going to laugh. … That’s where the fun is. Defenders aren’t expecting that. … It just brings a whole different aura about you.”

Robinson is bigger than most backs but boasts unbelievable initial quickness and explosiveness. His cuts are vicious, and his balance and body control are elite. He makes people miss in the smallest of spaces, wiggling away with ease. Coaches refer to him as the complete package. Gifted with tremendous hands, he can fill in as a slot receiver. “If he were to put the same amount of time as he’s putting into playing the running back position as he would as a receiver, the guy would be the lead receiver as well,” Pitre says.

This season, he’s second in pass routes run by a running back (362). He’s fourth in receiving targets (74) among backs and ninth in catches (48).

“The kid is perfect for today’s game, a game that I don’t think I could play,” says Hall of Fame running back and Longhorns legend Earl Campbell. “I couldn’t run east to west, and catching out of the backfield wasn’t really my thing. … His flexibility in the pass game will keep him in the league for a long time.”

To watch Robinson play is to expect a highlight to emerge, a mixtape to be made. Against the Texans, he had a silky, nearly impossible, one-handed, behind-the-back crossover catch, pinning the ball to his hip before bursting past a pair of defenders for the 6-yard touchdown. The week before, against the Jaguars, he snagged another ridiculous one-handed catch, gripping the ball without letting it touch the rest of his body, making his defender miss to get a first down.

In college, he once juked out Oklahoma’s entire defense for a 50-yard run, looking like his childhood idol Reggie Bush. He even once jumped over a defender in high school.

“He has a chance to go down as one of the top backs to ever play the game,” Choice says.

Perhaps his most underrated attribute is his encyclopedic knowledge of the game. Throughout his time at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona, where he was born and raised, he voluntarily attended the team’s offensive line meetings. Robinson has long appreciated that his success is dependent on others. That mentality has carried over to the pros, where he’s always conscious of everyone’s roles.

He’s had to adopt a more long-term view, especially given Atlanta’s struggles this season. Critics questioned Atlanta coach Arthur Smith’s decision-making, especially after a bizarre Week 7 win over Tampa Bay in which Robinson was given just one carry. Two days later, when questioned about why his top-10 pick wasn’t receiving the ball more, Smith said to reporters: “Sometimes, his impact away from the ball can open things up. … He still has a huge impact on the game.”

Robinson, who mostly splits carries with second-year back Tyler Allgeier, a 1,000-yard back as a rookie, tries to keep positive. To focus on what his coaches are asking of him. Almost all NFL backfields have a time-share of some kind these days. “Coach Smith and Coach Pitre, they had a plan on how they were going to get me used to the NFL mentally, physically,” Robinson says. “And they’ll throw me in situations here and there, but it was all just to help me and help me grow. But then as they do that, I know a lot of the social media gets in the way.”

When his former coaches checked in with him about the noise earlier in the season, Bijan didn’t seem the least bit worried or discouraged. After all, he was accustomed to a similar dynamic in college, sharing carries with Roschon Johnson, now on the Bears.

Robinson would tell his old coaches: “It’s all good. I’m fine. I’m just going to keep working.” He stayed patient. “Sometimes you want it to happen right away,” he says, “and the thing that I got to learn is, things aren’t going to happen right away. It’s going to be a process.”

His family thinks that his sunny demeanor and wide-lens perspective go back to how he was raised. How he entered the world. He was, as the story goes, a miracle child.

Bijan wasn’t breathing when he was born. Doctors weren’t sure whether he would survive. Hospital staff huddled around him, trying to figure out what was wrong. The baby looked blue.

Gerri, Bijan’s grandmother, believes he made it by the grace of God. As improbable as it sounds, the family tells the story of Bijan’s first day in the world as follows: His grandmother says she heard God tell her to lay her hand on the child’s chest to revive him. Something clicked in her mind, a vision she’d had about four months before. In the vision, a small child was teetering on the second floor of an apartment complex, and Gerri came along just in time to grab the child before it fell. She didn’t know when she had the vision that it was perhaps a manifestation of Bijan, but the image haunted her. “I knew, as scripture tells us, warning comes before destruction,” she says.

She walked in between the doctors and slipped her hand over Bijan’s chest. He yelped out a giant cry. And though he spent several days in the NICU and would suffer from asthma as a child, he survived and has felt grateful since. “Sometimes in life we forget where we’ve come from,” Gerri says, “and we forget … who’s brought us to the place that we’re at. But I will tell you, Bijan does not forget.”

The Robinsons felt Bijan was given another chance at life to serve a higher purpose. That purpose wasn’t yet clear, but the family soon realized football would somehow be involved. Bijan seemed to be a natural—except, maybe, during his first game. He was 5. His coach told him: “You’re going to be the running back.” Bijan didn’t know what that meant, but he assumed running backs … ran back.

He ran the wrong way and into his own end zone, resulting in a safety.

Once he got the hang of the rules, he began torching the competition. He was more explosive than his classmates. He carried around a notebook, drawing stick figures of each position, conjuring up game plays.

At home, he’d tell his mom, “Tackle me!” Cleo, his grandfather, a field and replay official who worked in the Pac-12 for 37 years, would turn on recordings of his games as Bijan pretended to play, fully decked out in uniform, in the living room.

Bijan learned a great deal from Cleo. Sometimes he hated the monotonous drills Cleo ran him through, but they paid off. “He did [it] because he knew it would make him into a better player,” Cleo says.

Both of his grandparents helped LaMore, a single mother at the time, raise him. “We were such a tight-knit family,” LaMore says. Gerri even used to run every touchdown alongside him on the sideline during games.

By middle school, Bijan started dreaming of staying in state and becoming an Arizona Wildcat. Then an Arizona State Sun Devil. He envisioned building his mother a big house on top of a hill. He wanted to star in the NFL. He wrote a letter to LaMore outlining these goals, calling it “our plan.”

Salpointe initially put him on the freshman team, but it was immediately clear that he was on a different level. “It was unreal,” says Al Alexander, Salpointe’s former offensive line coach and associate head coach. “I was like, ‘This is not even fair.’” Still, even as he joined varsity and continued to thrive, some critics said he was excelling only because he was playing against “Tucson talent,” as LaMore puts it. But Robinson kept proving himself on a national stage, dominating in elite camps around the country.

Things took off his sophomore year. Every college in the country was after him. He stood out not just because of his speed or athleticism, but because he was a student of the game, working as if he were a third-string player. “His work ethic was unparalleled,” says Dennis Bene, Salpointe’s former head coach. “He just worked with a purpose.” He rarely played fourth quarters and made his teammates feel valued. “He probably could have ran for 1,000 yards with anybody blocking in front of him,” says former Salpointe teammate Bruno Fina, now an offensive lineman at UCLA. “But he made it a point to be thankful to us, be humble.”

Much as he does these days, Robinson carried enormous expectations back then. His coaches often had to escort him from the field, ducking the hordes of people grabbing at him. Big-time BCS coaches would arrive at the school at 8 a.m., asking to meet with Robinson. His coaches explained that he had classes.

Once, Robinson showed Bene 750 unread text messages from college coaches. “I could see it starting to take a toll on him,” Bene says. Of course, Robinson was grateful. But it could be overwhelming. “Few people really realize how difficult it is,” Bene says.

Robinson kept in mind his long-term vision: a lengthy pro career. Many college coaches promised him, “Bijan, we’re going to run you 30 times a night, and you’re going to be the guy.”

But at what cost?

Few seemed to address that question, except for Texas. Drayton, his former Texas associate head coach and run game coordinator, had a unique plan. “You want to carry the ball 30, 40 times a game? I don’t want you to do that,” he said to Robinson on his visit, according to Alexander, who came along. “I want you to be ready for the NFL, and I want tread on the tires when you leave here.”

Drayton wanted Robinson to adopt a big-picture mentality about the game to prolong his career. It wasn’t just about repetitions; it was about avoiding unnecessary hits and maximizing Robinson’s versatile skill set. “Obviously, you hear all the horror stories about ‘The average expectancy of a playing career of a running back is less than two years.’ I told him, in confidence, I thought a lot of that had to do with coaching, how you prepare,” Drayton says. “Being able to widen his blinders to understanding defenses, knowing where free hitters are coming from, things of that sort. Avoiding unnecessary hits that running backs take when they are improperly prepared.”

Drayton’s philosophy was a major factor in Robinson’s decision to ultimately commit to Texas. And Drayton’s plan to nurture Robinson in this manner would further prepare him for the NFL.

Each year at Texas, Robinson’s production increased. As a junior in 2022, he morphed into one of the best players in the country. That season he recorded single-season career highs in carries (258), rushing yards (1,580), rushing touchdowns (18), and receiving yards (314), while also adding 19 receptions and two receiving touchdowns.

His coaches remember not just his highlight-worthy plays, but also a rare moment of failure. Robinson fumbled the ball in a 2022 overtime loss against Texas Tech. Dejected, he took full responsibility. “That’s on me,” he said. The next three days at school, he carried a football with him everywhere—to class, to lunch, to the field—signaling to his teammates that he wouldn’t let it happen again.

When it became clear he was headed to Atlanta, he knew he couldn’t rest on his laurels. No matter how highly touted he was, he felt he had to earn his place in the NFL like everybody else.

He’d have to adjust to the speed of the NFL game. He saw how quickly holes close. How linebackers could reach him a lot faster than they had in college. He could no longer rely purely on athleticism to make plays.

Patience.

He continued to embrace that lesson through the team’s early-season struggles, especially as many continued to wonder why Robinson wasn’t performing the way they wanted him to.

“This is your own race. Run at your pace.” He remembers coach Pitre’s words, especially as the outside noise continues to reverberate. There has been plenty of it as of late, especially after the Panthers loss. Robinson had a fumble. The team dropped a game no one thought it would. Their inconsistencies have continued. Questions about Smith’s future of coaching in Atlanta have resurfaced. No one seems quite sure what will happen next, but Robinson tries to stay in the moment. Stay positive. Remember that he has room to grow and improve. “He’s still trying to forge a path for himself,” Tomlinson says.

Tomlinson mentions how Robinson will be fresh for the long term and take a more gradual approach, given the kind of physical toll that a running back endures throughout the course of a season. “I really believe the approach that the Falcons have taken with Bijan is for the betterment of him. For the long term,” Tomlinson says. “And that’s the one thing in my discussions with him—it’s just about understanding what the organization, how they feel about you. This is a long-term project. They want to make sure that when they’re good, when they’re ready to make a Super Bowl run, they gotta have Bijan at his absolute best. And they’re going to build around him. All these things are new for a player.”

All his life, though, Robinson has been ready for these new challenges. Anticipating this moment. Focusing on the future. Preparing for what’s next. Trying to master a position that was changing in real time.

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