By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Washington Redskins wide receiver Billy McMullen used to command attention. At 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, and coming off an exceptional college career, he was expected to produce quickly as a third-round draft choice by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2003.
Then the Richmond native who set team records at the University of Virginia wilted under the spotlight of the NFL. He failed to make the transition to the professional level and meet the expectations of demanding Eagles fans.
After three unproductive seasons in Philadelphia, McMullen was traded to the Minnesota Vikings for a reunion with Vikings coach and former Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress. McMullen had 23 receptions for 307 yards and two touchdowns in 2006 -- not enough to make the team the following season. The Vikings released McMullen, and he spent last season out of football.
"I ain't going to say it makes you hungrier," said McMullen, who stayed in Richmond and at times could not bear to watch NFL games on television. "But it makes you realize how much you love the game, how much you like to compete with the best players in the world."
Now McMullen, 28, looks at rookies Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly, second-round picks saturated with expectations. McMullen was once like them, a player fans came to training camp clamoring to observe because he could become the big, physical wide receiver their beloved franchise badly needed.
So far, it hasn't worked out for McMullen. He has been given his third opportunity, and though he refuses to admit it, it might be his last.
"Nothing's changed," McMullen said. "I just got more focus on what I got to do and stop trying to do too much. Just do what I was called to do."
Hidden in McMullen's words is exactly what has changed since he was a rookie who arrived at the Eagles' training camp as the first player to lead U-Va. in receptions in four straight seasons.
He was a valuable draft pick at a position of need who had been one of the most productive wide receivers in the ACC. But McMullen lost track of what earned him the expectations in the first place.
"I think I was trying too hard," McMullen said. "Being a rookie, I was trying to impress too many people. Of course, you got to set your own goals, but I was trying to impress my coaches and impress other players, and I forgot how to play the game."
McMullen's hands became suspect. As he adjusted to a complicated playbook and the fast pace of the NFL, McMullen struggled in the one aspect of the game most essential to a wide receiver: catching the football.
McMullen's ineffectiveness became frustrating. In his first two seasons with the Eagles, he was inactive for a combined 16 games. In the decisive third and final season with the Eagles, McMullen caught 18 passes for 268 yards and one touchdown.
Philadelphia traded him the following spring, cutting its losses on a failed project.
"Too much things around your mind, as far as trying to figure out the playbook," McMullen said of what plagued him in Philadelphia. "You forget about the basics, like catching the ball. My first year I had a rough time catching the ball, because I was trying to do too much. But as you get older, you relax. You play the game and you have a good time doing it."
McMullen provides insight for Thomas and Kelly. They, like he once did, enter with expectations. They, like he once did, bring size to a wide receiving corps in need of it. And McMullen does not want to see them fall victim to the problem that plagued him early in his career.
"I just talk to [McMullen] about his previous experience and how things was," Thomas said. "He told me they were humbling and helped him learn a lot, going to different places."
The experience is helping McMullen through the Redskins' training camp. He is taking what he learned elsewhere, combining it with his natural abilities and fighting to last on a roster restocked during April's draft.
His confidence brims from learning a similar offense to the one Redskins Coach Jim Zorn brings from Seattle. Like Zorn, Childress, McMullen's head coach in Minnesota, came from the coaching fraternity that includes the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren.
So as players adapt to the offense, McMullen plays a step ahead. The terminology is different. The system is not.
"He knows what he's doing," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "Even from Day One, I had him playing one position, but he knows other positions also, so I gave him the opportunity to play other positions."
McMullen can line up at all wide receiver positions, from split end to slot.
"He clearly has more experience and is playing fast more than the younger guys," Zorn said. "No question."
It is an offense that dates from McMullen's college career, during which former Redskins quarterback coach Bill Musgrave was offensive coordinator at Virginia from 2001 to '02. For much of McMullen's football career, he has practiced in a system with fundamental similarities to his current situation.
"It's pretty much the same offense," McMullen said. "Just different words here and there."
Of course, the offenses were similar in Philadelphia and Minnesota, as well. And even as the numbers stack against him in Washington with returning starters and high draft picks all but guaranteed roster spots, McMullen sticks to an edict from his time as a high draft pick and hopeful starter: Stop worrying, focus and play football.
"I can't go back," McMullen said. "So here I am now."