Picture this. It’s the 2017 NFL season opener against a divisional rival in the Texans. You’re a franchise receiver in a contract year. You make a catch for a first down on the third play of the season but pull up awkwardly with no contact while going out of bounds. Immediately, a sinking feeling comes over you because your knee doesn’t feel great. The diagnosis: a torn ACL. All your work in the off-season is gone with the snap of a finger just a minute into play.
Now you rehabilitate for the next several months while your team goes on to play in the AFC Championship Game anyway. You put a smile on your face, but deep down, your heart aches. The human in you is happy for your friends and teammates, but the competitor longs to make a meaningful contribution on the field. That competitor is frustrated. “They almost made it to the Super Bowl without me,” you think. Not being needed or feeling useless can be the most lonely feeling in the world.
That was Allen Robinson’s reality last September with the Jaguars.
After tearing his ACL, Robinson was no longer a focal point but instead unwanted and an afterthought. Success can drown out all previous noise as he would learn. It can make you seem replaceable, turning you into a non-priority. It transforms what you were envisioning before the disaster. Robinson was down on his luck. And seemingly, no one cared as the Jaguars became a sensation. He was a man without a country.
“It wasn’t fun at all. It was something that was very unsettling,” said a candid Robinson of being the odd man out in Jacksonville’s rise. “Not to the point of them having success, but for me working so hard from the time that I came in there to a 3-13 organization. It was tough to watch.”
A 2014 second-round draft pick, Robinson grew up as a professional with one of the worst teams in the NFL. The Jaguars were 3-13 when he was a rookie, possessing no hope. A year later, he put on one of the more impressive recent seasons with 14 touchdowns and 1,400 yards in 2015. A breakout season that showcased why he was a rising star. 2016 became a down year as the Jaguars had to re-evaluate their roster situation. But then 2017 became a magical ride. An exciting ride that Robinson didn’t have an invitation to as soon as he pulled up awkwardly on that Houston sideline. His work that he was proud of, erased and for naught.
“Going into the season, it was one of the best off-seasons that I had from a training standpoint,” said Robinson. “I thought that I polished my game a lot. It was the best that I felt coming into a season.”
The twists and turns of Robinson’s roughly last six months as a professional football player are an example of the cruel nature of the NFL.
Your intense dedication is appreciated: until it isn’t. Your plans to rise from the muck that Jacksonville was once mired in 2014 are relevant: until they aren’t. You’re only valued in this league: until you’re not.
With the Jaguars making a run towards serious contention on the strength of a dominant defense and running game last year, they decided not to put any tag on an explosive downfield talent coming off an injury in Robinson. Robinson was forgotten in the wake of a different football vision driving the Jaguars. His livelihood and consideration of his future were gone as soon as Jacksonville made a deep January run without him. Without any input or control from Robinson. Which, at first glance, is what made the decision to move on so cold-blooded.
A part of the beauty of the NFL is the assortment of chances it offers. While one door closes, another opens up. One commitment ends, and another aggressive courting process for a potentially brighter outlook comes to the forefront. It’s a point of view where once again, a player can ingrain themself into a plan and where a new team can treat him like family from the outset. He mutually holds a belief as he appreciates the investment and confidence they show in his recovery and rise back from the forgotten man in the locker room to go-to playmaker.
Robinson’s signing with the Bears, made official in free agency last week, allows him an opportunity to revitalize. It lets him rediscover appreciation as one of the star faces at Halas Hall. Show NFL players you care. Show them they’re valued. And they’ll reciprocate.
Now, instead of waiting to become relevant with the Jaguars and not receiving the eventual payoff, Robinson joins a ready-made team where provided he does his part, he won’t have to experience the distance he felt in 2017. A Chicago team with many pieces already in place can be his rebound, a destination where he fits right in.
Provided Robinson does his part, he’ll be right in the thick of the action, competing and terrorizing defenses just as he prefers. Sometimes even single-handedly causing defensive coordinators the most persistent of headaches. That’s the reason why he knows his relationship with the Bears isn’t one-sided from a gratitude perspective. They brought him in to be a game-changer for their offense. It’s a responsibility he's always wanted.
“That’s why they brought me here,” said Robinson bluntly, of how he sees his ability. “That’s why Jacksonville drafted me, to come here (to the NFL) and make plays.”
Anything less than a superstar target that reigns terror upon defenses will be considered a failure from Robinson. That means from an outside perspective and by Robinson. Given the harsh evaluations and self-criticisms he places upon himself, he’d be the first to admit he left plays on the field and where he wasn’t the player the Bears thought they wanted. That’s why he’s in a position to light it up: he doesn’t hold back.
The reality is regardless of any injury, Chicago is expecting fireworks from their best offensive player. And Robinson wouldn’t expect any less of himself.
The key to any accomplishment for Robinson comes from how his connection with Trubisky progresses: Where both will prove to be the shoulders each can and need to lean on. In regards to Trubisky, this is the quarterback that Robinson can’t afford to have faltered. This quarterback needs to trust him regardless of the on-field situation and give him the double coverage aerial opportunities he’s built a reputation around.
In regards to Robinson, Trubisky is the player that gives him that chance at redemption. That allows him to revitalize in one of the most historic football markets eagerly seeking a quality Bears team, let alone a championship contender. It’s a quarterback to receiver connection that Chicago has been missing from a relevant contender, for well, ever.
To his credit, Robinson doesn’t take this assignment lightly. He and his quarterback must pull on a rope, united, if both are to get respect. As the veteran who has already previously enjoyed a measure of success with a young quarterback in Blake Bortles, this is where Robinson most earns his keep with the Bears.
“Fortunately enough, in my second year, my quarterback was in his second year as well,” said Robinson, discussing his stellar 2015. “I won’t say too much from Mitch’s (Trubisky’s) standpoint, but I know from my standpoint, I’ll be able to make his job easy. That’s my goal. That’s what I came here for: to make those plays, to make those catches, to make his job easy.”
Based on the conviction that Robinson speaks with, you’re inclined to believe that he’s ready for how he’s going to tilt the Bears’ franchise at full speed ahead. Based on the previous production and history, the evidence is on display too.
Unfortunately, NFL players can’t see the future. They aren’t offered a glimpse as to how their careers will play out. Robinson’s already had that lesson with Jacksonville. This fortune-telling or lack thereof isn’t just a fact of football, but life in general. It’s that unknown that keeps athletes and people pushing forward every day. It’s adversity that motivates for a common goal, for security. You name it.
That’s what will drive Robinson in Chicago. The promise of a future he’s invested in where a team can believe in him.
Robinson’s future is not on a short-term outlook. He wants to be remembered. The most optimal way to do that is by helping the Bears win. The best method of facilitating success is focusing on everyone but yourself in that process.
“There’s a lot more on my mind right now,” said Robinson. “It’s helping change this organization back around and try to bring back a Lombardi trophy.”
The ultimate goal for Robinson and the Bears is climbing the proverbial mountain. Everything else barely registers on the radar. It’s playing in that early February game and keeping a singular focus on making the most of that goal. Robinson mentioning that from the beginning sets a high bar. One that both the franchise and he should be prepared to strive for constantly.
Maintaining an open mind and being dead set on the future is how Robinson knows he can meet that goal of winning a Super Bowl in Chicago. And it’s not about him using the Bears as a launchpad to bounce back. It’s about never having that helpless feeling on the sideline again.
Robinson is in it for the long haul with Chicago and is prepared to make good on all promises for a franchise eagerly waiting for contention. He’s committed to excellence.
“I know I signed for three years, but this is not just a three-year thing for me. In my eyes, I want to retire a Chicago Bear.”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.