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The Zen of Allen Robinson
Yet again, everything seems to be going haywire around one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers. Robinson has every reason to lose his mind right now in Chicago. But he’s not and he tells Go Long why.
The first conversation is cancelled last minute. Allen Robinson had more pressing matters at hand. His basement was flooding. Right when the guy could get a little peace and quiet on a Saturday morning, he woke up to disaster. He needed to mend the foundation of the home he’s renting in Chicago.
He still answers his phone to explain. He is eerily calm.
Where you or I would be losing our damn minds, simultaneously tearing through a toolbox and googling for help in a Clark Griswold-like panic, Robinson doesn’t even raise his voice. He says he’s just a little busy at the moment and will have to chat the following week.
Which is all strange considering no player in the league should be stressing more than the Chicago Bears wide receiver.
The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder puts on route-running clinics every Sunday, gets separation like a gazelle and is still strong enough, nasty enough to bully any cornerback at the apex of a catch. His talent’s unlimited. He may be the best wide receiver in football and, yet, we’d never know it because he has played all seven of his pro seasons for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears. The conditions around Robinson are almost always radioactive. His teams lose. And lose. And lose. And the football typically sails over his head or skips to his feet. He has every reason to be jealous of other receivers with his talent.
From afar, the assumption is that Robinson is most likely in a straitjacket on his off days. A 5-1 start gave way to 5-7 faster than that water rushing into his basement.
He’s a free agent in the spring, too. A contract worth, oh, $95 million or so hangs in the balance, and Robinson hasn’t been able to show the world just how special he is.
That is not the case for his equals at the position. For them, this season’s been a celebration.
DeAndre Hopkins catches a Hail Mary. Tyreek Hill backflips into the end zone. Davante Adams catches Aaron Rodgers’ 400th career touchdown. Stefon Diggs looks and sounds reborn while catching an NFL-high 100 receptions. DK Metcalf has the play of the year and, most Sundays, does not look human. Even Michael Thomas, who was clearly unhappy back in September, is on a 10-3 team making $96.25 million over five years. How does Robinson not lose his damn mind? The last time he played in primetime, against the Vikings, his quarterback was anemic. The camera panned his direction on the bench at one point and Robinson could’ve lost it. Nothing was going right. All Nick Foles magic had painfully disappeared for good, three ‘n out to three ‘n out.
Yet Robinson didn’t freak out, didn’t scowl, didn’t mutter a word. Instead, he simply stared up at the videoboard.
What’s truly going on in Allen Robinson’s mind in that moment? All season? Once he got that basement cleaned up, Go Long caught up with the Bears star at length to find out.
Turns out, he’s sincerely at peace. He’s a man completely devoid of stress. He doesn’t know what the future holds but, in Year 7, he has learned to control what he can control. I know, I know. Every red-blooded professional athlete regurgitates that dreaded cliché but few actually mean it. Even fewer actually put those words to action. Robinson? He epitomizes such tunnel vision. Such Zen. That night vs. the Vikings, Robinson was staring up at himself on the replay to see if there was anything he could’ve done differently on that play.
Robinson could lose it, could think his career is flashing before his eyes because he plays a position that inherently lacks control. A wide receiver only earns a living and makes a name for himself if — and only if — the ball is thrown his way. And thrown with accuracy. He’s 27. He’s in his prime. He could go rogue like Diggs did in Minneapolis — read Part II of our series on Mike Zimmer’s Vikings for that full story — and not one person would blame him. Diggs was fined $200K for unexcused absences. Diggs aired all frustrations on social media tweet to tweet. And, as player-turned-coach Terence Newman revealed to Go Long, Diggs was even “more volatile than people understood or realized” behind closed doors. And you know what? Many teammates agreed with him. Many thought Diggs had a point.
Yet here is Robinson. Not worried about a thing.
That hasn’t always been the case.
“Whatever the hand is that I’m dealt, is the hand that I’m dealt,” Robinson says. “I think a lot of people go wrong — not just in football — but in life as far as comparing to other things and comparing to other circumstances other people have. For myself, I remove all of that. I don’t compare to anything. There’s a point that Kobe Bryant would make: ‘Get over yourself.’ That’s a quote I try to put at the forefront. Whenever anything comes about, I try not to put anything else to the forefront of ‘OK, what can I do? How can I be better here? How can I thrive here? How can I make this situation successful?’ I try not to figure, ‘OK, this is happening… and this is happening…’ That’s where I was at in Jacksonville which hindered me even more.
“I was looking at those things and trying to figure out the whys of stuff. I think that, now, I don’t try to focus on the why or figure out the why. I just try to figure out, ‘How can I be better? How can I improve? What can I do to elevate myself?’”
So that’s what he plans to do amid all chaos.
This isn’t the same Allen Robinson I met back in the ‘17 offseason. First at EXOS in Arizona, then again in Florida. That “A-Rob” had the same ambitions as this “A-Rob” — he still views the Hall of Fame as a very realistic goal. While we hacked away at Topgolf in Jacksonville, he was not shy. Robinson said he doesn’t just play for the name on front of the jersey but also the name on the back, adding “That’s something I've played for my entire life.” Sticking it to everyone who doubted him drove Robinson and he privately compared himself to other receivers all the time.
At one point, he said “check this out” and pulled a spiral notebook out of his backpack. Page after page was filled with his stats vs. other receivers’ stats.
This line of thinking consumed Robinson then.
He was entering a contract year then, too. He thought he was in a good place, mentally, when he really wasn’t. Looking back to that A-Rob, this A-Rob says that if something went wrong in Jacksonville, it got to him. His OC is fired. He’s not getting the ball. The ball’s rarely ever on time. The Jags are losing. He handled these situations poorly.
“I let everything else outside weigh on me,” he says now. “Rather than just controlling what I can. Doing as much as I can to be the best teammate and be the best player. I felt like I took everything on a little bit different.”
It was impossible to tell in real time. He was optimism personified in that Mike Bibby throwback jersey when we hung out. But beneath that veneer was a wide receiver struggling with the helpless nature of his occupation. He now admits those Jacksonville years were much harder on him than anyone realized.
He couldn’t stop lamenting his plight.
Week to week.
Play to play.
“I look at my third year,” he says. “We fired our offensive coordinator (Greg Olson). I think there were a lot of things going on that as a player, you look back at it, you’re like, ‘Wow, I could’ve handled that situation different.’ So after that, I was like, ‘How could I have handled that situation different?’ And if something like that were to ever come up again, how can I better that situation? Looking back at it, I think my performance that (2016) year could’ve been better based on everything else going on around me. If I would’ve focused more on how I can pick these things up on my own and continue to make myself better.
“When you’re not having success — and some stuff is going on around you — that can weigh you down. If you’re not acknowledging those things that can weigh you down and affect you, then they can. Now, if you’re cognizant of, ‘OK, if I ever get in this situation again, or this situation is happening, OK, let me try to do this differently. Let’s see if this helps me out better or let me do this differently.’ To see if this will help me out on the field or off the field better.”
A handful of “bullet points” now replay in his head whenever he feels himself re-entering that dark place.
Let it be. Control what you can control.
Lead these receivers. Get this thing in Chicago turned around.
And… he’s fine.
Because the turning point actually took place there in Jacksonville, a few months after we hung out in ’17. Three snaps into that season, Robinson tore the ACL in his left knee. Right when he was set to light the league on fire, his season was over. He sat in the Texans’ visitor’s locker room that day and let all emotions pour out of him. He allowed himself to be pissed and sad and ask “Why!?” This didn’t seem right. He worked out like a madman at EXOS. He trained with one of the best wide receivers of all-time in Randy Moss.
This was his year. This was the Jaguars’ year.
Once those emotions were flushed, he was good. He focused on getting back to the field.
“Things can go one of two ways: I can feel sorry for myself or I can bounce back and change whatever the circumstances were,” Robinson says. “I think I’ve taken that approach with many different things. I’m not going to sit back and feel sorry for myself and wonder ‘Why?’ and wonder ‘What?’ Whatever is thrown at me, I’m just going to try to maneuver around that to the best of my ability.”
He knows the Jaguars would’ve rewritten history if he was on the field, too.
As you may recall, they nearly upset the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship that season. They came one pass shy. That entire offense, with Robinson, would’ve looked different.
“If they have a healthy me that year,” Robinson says, “I definitely think the Jaguars have a good chance of being Super Bowl champions.”
He still got paid. He still inked a three-year, $42 million deal with the Chicago Bears after missing out on that very real shot at a ring. He knew nothing was guaranteed in this offense, either. The year prior, the Bears selected Mitchell Trubisky ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson but Year 1 went swimmingly. For years Robinson had been telling family and friends that he’d tear it up in a playoff game if he ever got the chance and he got that chance with the Bears.
Robinson did not disappoint, either. He caught 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown before the “Double Doink” crushed the souls of Bears fans everywhere.
It’s been a rough experience since.
He had a nice rapport with Trubisky and stood by his young QB even as Mahomes and Watson became the faces of the league through ‘19. And when head coach Matt Nagy surprisingly benched Trubisky 10 quarters into this season, Robinson had nice things to say about Nick Foles on national TV, too. In retrospect, that benching was a colossal miscalculation with Foles ranking 29th in passer rating, 34th in yards per attempt and 30th in QBR. The offensive football was downright offensive through six straight losses — even by Bears standards — with Nagy only turning back to Trubisky because Foles injured his hip.
Through it all, Robinson is adamant. He hasn’t returned to that dark place for one second.
Never, not once, has been down.
“No! I promise you. One hundred percent,” Robinson says. “That’s what makes it so crazy. For me, it’s ‘Where can I get better at? What can I do?’ You have frustrations because you’re losing but it’s never a situation where I’m sitting down like, ‘Dang!’ I feel like I’ve put that behind me with football in general. Now, it’s ‘What can I control? The things that I can control, cool. Let me try to change that. Let me try to improve that and see the outcome I get. And then it’s an ongoing cycle of that. It’s week to week — ‘let me change this, let me get better here.’ Each and every week I’m doing that, I find myself getting better and better and better and better.”
Teammates see this Zen every day, too. Robinson simply does not fret.
In fact, it’s often the opposite. Robinson is the jokester in the meeting room.
Rookie receiver Darnell Mooney says Robinson has the innate ability to break the tension in the room after an excruciating loss. Robinson always has a one-liner ready in the holster and Mooney, so often, is his target. The rookie isn’t sure if it’s because he’s the new guy or what but Robinson is relentless in ragging on him for the way he talks. He is, Mooney laughs, “always talking crap. Always. He always gets those sneaky words in. Something slick.”
Everyone is well aware of that elephant in the room, too: Robinson’s contract situation. His Chicago career could be over in three weeks and, well, nobody knows if the guys running the show will even be around in three weeks.
Through it all, Robinson doesn’t sweat a thing.
“He’s poised through everything going on,” Mooney says. “He has a big contract thing going on and he has us winning and losing. He has a lot going on. Whatever happens, happens. He’s just living in the moment. He’s happy about what’s going on right now. Life itself. He’s very appreciative of what’s going on now. He’s not looking into the future.”
The result is an All Pro-worthy season even if nobody’s noticing. Robinson put on a show last weekend as the Trubisky-led Bears (!) obliterated the Watson-led Texans (!), 36-7. Against the same team he faced when he tore his ACL, Robinson’s performance — nine catches, 123 yards, one touchdown — was a sublime work of art that should be preserved in a museum.
He plucked a back-shoulder lob from Trubisky out of the sky for 16 yards, contorting his body 360 degrees upon contact.
He shook a corner loose on a slant route at the goal line for a touchdown, completely ignoring the linebacker inches away who could’ve crushed him.
He lined up in the right slot and after wasting another corner on another slant route, he didn’t get alligator arms with safety Justin Reid on site to smash him. No, Robinson caught the ball and somehow hit the brakes like Iverson with his right foot and got skinny. Reid completely whiffed and Robinson slammed the gas pedal for a 35-yard gain. When he was finally tracked down, Robinson signaled “first down” with both index fingers on the Solider Field turf.
Houston had zero answers.
On the season, Robinson now has 86 receptions for 1,027 yards with six touchdowns. Despite everything. Despite the cold-hard reality that, in 2021, this franchise may have a new GM, new head coach and new quarterback.
The key is that “ongoing cycle” of self-improvement. Has 2020 been frustrating? Of course. “Nobody ever wants to lose,” Robinson says. But controlling what he can means diagnosing his game like never before. Dissecting the “nuances.” This season, Robinson wanted to sharpen his intermediate, in-breaking routes — exactly what we saw last week vs. the Texans. So, each game, he puts his own game under the microscope. He pinpoints one route that wasn’t completed and figures out a way he could’ve done something differently.
Robinson fixes what he can on a team that, frankly, needs quite a bit of fixing.
Says Robinson: “I can’t fix everything. I can’t solely change a win or loss. I can better myself and better my play and try to help contribute towards the win. I’m my biggest critic. I critique myself. I figure out, how can I get better here? How can I get better there?
“I try to challenge myself every week.”
Mooney believes Robinson is undoubtedly a top-five receiver. Mooney cannot understand why Robinson doesn’t get the respect that a guy like Hopkins seems to command. His guess is that it’s because Robinson is this calm, this quiet publicly. He calls the NFL “part entertainment,” so many wide receivers tend to be a bit more vocal whenever those cameras are around. Those cameras supply a branding opportunity, always, and branding isn’t something Robinson cares that much about.
The 2020 fifth round pick will never forget watching film of Robinson shortly after the Bears drafted him. He was stunned.
“If you throw him the ball — no matter where it is — he’s going to catch it,” Mooney says. “I don’t know why he gets the disrespect that he gets. It’s crazy. You watch the film of games and you’ll go, ‘Man, this dude is really a monster. He really is a freak.’ I don’t know why he gets slept on so much.”
Honestly, now, Robinson could not care less.
He’s still keeping that Kobe quote at the forefront of his mind.
Allen Robinson still watches every interview he can of the Laker great on YouTube and that one resonates most, the one where Bryant espouses the virtues of getting over yourself when asked about the worst moment of his basketball career. In the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals, of course, Bryant shot not one, not two, not three, but four airballs in the waning moments of an elimination game. He was an 18-year-old rookie on a team loaded with vets. He was mocked as arrogant, as selfish, as everything that’s wrong about his generation.
And you know what? Bryant didn’t give a damn. When the Lakers’ plane landed back in L.A. that night, he went to Palisades High to shoot jumpers until the sun came up. That offseason, he repeated the ritual every day.
Bryant didn’t care what anybody else had to say.
“Not worrying about this, not worrying about that,” Robinson says. “It’s ‘Alright. Get over yourself. Fix what you have to fix and get the job done.’ I think that’s the approach I’ve taken. At least since I’ve been in Chicago. That’s something I’ve adopted. No matter what it is — win, lose or draw — I’m going to take myself out of the equation from a personal standpoint and look at, ‘OK, how can I get better? Where can I get better? What can I do to make myself better?’”
So he treasures those three words, just like he treasures one piece of advice from Moss when they trained together those six weeks back in ’17. Robinson will never forget Moss telling him that “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you.”
The show will go on, Moss would tell him, with or without you.
Now, Robinson’s standard is this: “To be the best in the NFL.” Robinson believes he can do everything a wide receiver needs to — shake corners in tight quarters, separate vertically, win the jump ball, etc. Robinson wants to be the most complete wideout in the game. The day prior to this chat, he was looking at the numbers. His numbers, that is. Nobody else’s. And at this pace, he still believes reaching the Hall of Fame is a real possibility. (“I’ll be able to have that discussion,” he says, point blank.) Not that he’s comparing himself to Hopkins or Diggs or Metcalf or anyone else thinking the same.
There’s zero need.
Why would he? Why would anybody — in any walk of life — care how someone else is living? He watches other football games but Robinson doesn’t need that notebook anymore.
“You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to compare yourself to other peoples’ situation,” Robinson says. “What other people have going on. This and that. You can’t even really do it. I try to eliminate all of that. I just try to figure out ‘How can I be better?’ and ‘How can I thrive?’ in whatever the case may be.”
If you’re watching a Bears game and Robinson ever does appear aggravated at all, he wants you all to know it’s because he’s upset with himself. Not the quarterbacking. Not even the play-calling, even though his agent said the Bears need to throw him the damn ball in the red zone. Robinson believes if he holds himself to that highest of high standards — being the best — everything else will work out perfectly fine.
As for that future, Robinson could form a scary tandem with Adams in Green Bay… or join Tua Tagovailoa on a Miami team primed to take the next step… or join Joe Burrow in Cincinnati… or Trevor Lawrence in New York… or the 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson in Baltimore… or maybe Bill Belichick gives him a call…or…or…
… he won’t let his mind wander.
That’d mean deviating from this mindset. He won’t comment on anything yet. He simply says that playing for the Bears has been “an awesome experience.”
This 2020 season isn’t dead yet, either.
Believe it or not, the 6-7 Bears are one game out of the playoff race with three games to go. With three wins, per the analytics site 538, the Bears have an 89 percent chance of making the playoffs. With three wins, everything could change in the Windy City for Robinson, for Trubisky, for Matt Nagy, for Ryan Pace.
This is a franchise-defining moment ahead for all.
First up, a rematch with the Vikings this weekend.
Says Mooney: “We’re in the playoffs right now. It’s win or go home for us. We’re not trying to go home right now. We’re trying to go home when there’s only two teams playing and we’re one of them.”
For once, there’s a jolt of hope in Robinson’s football universe.
He’s keeping perspective. His family’s healthy through a pandemic, something he does not take lightly. He feels blessed. And he won’t “carry the weight” of any loss anymore. He’ll give himself 12 to 24 hours to sulk and move on. And continue to view himself as a simple “piece of the puzzle” trying to be the best piece he can.
If you’re worried about Allen Robinson, if you’re concerned he’s wasting away, the man himself has one final message for you all: Please, don’t.
“I feel like I learned a lot about myself,” Robinson says. “I learned how to get through different adversities on and off the field. That’s how I thrive now and keep myself at the standard I want to be at and hold myself to that and keep some sanity because I’ve learned how to deal with certain things.
“I’ve learned how to get the best out of myself consistently no matter what.”