No Washington Redskin got quite as fired up for games against the Philadelphia Eagles in recent years as wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who was bent on avenging his unceremonious release after six years of service.
So it was fitting that when the Redskins opened their 2017 season against the Eagles, the first offensive play — a deep throw over the middle — was scripted for Terrelle Pryor Sr., the wide receiver they envisioned as the successor to Jackson in a big-play role. But a potential touchdown fell incomplete as Pryor struggled to locate the ball in the sun while streaking down field.
It was the first hint of what Redskins coaches already understood but was less clear to fans and pundits who had grown intoxicated with Pryor's promise during training camp in Richmond, where the former NFL quarterback's rare speed, impossibly long stride, at 6 feet 4, and huge hands (size XXXXL gloves) made him look uncoverable in his relatively new role as a wide receiver.
"To watch Terrelle play last year [in Cleveland], you're blown away by the production; and to look at a guy with that skill set, you're enamored with the intangibles," Redskins wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard said in an interview this week, as the team prepared for Monday's prime-time rematch with Philadelphia. "But it's still a progression."
Pryor, who caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards for Cleveland last year (his first full season as a wide receiver), was signed to a one-year deal in March to help fill the breach created when the Redskins let Jackson, who averaged 17.9 yards per catch and changed defenses simply by stepping on the field, depart for a bigger paycheck in Tampa Bay.
Through five games, Pryor has been slow to stake his claim.
His 16 catches on 29 targets place him fourth on the team. His best catch — racing past Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters for a leaping, 44-yard touchdown capped by a backward somersault into the end zone in a Week 3 loss — was a beauty. But there have been drops and missed opportunities in key situations, whether catchable third-down throws or, just last week, two open shots at touchdowns that didn't pan out.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has shouldered responsibility for throws that have been beyond Pryor's reach. "He could have very easily — with two more accurate throws — had two touchdowns," Cousins said of last week's misses. "But I think he is doing a really good job and he is working really hard. I think we have made great strides."
But Pryor has been hard on himself, too, apologizing for letting his teammates down with his six-catch performance (on 11 targets) in the season-opening loss. He knows he is capable of more.
"I know I could dominate at this position, given the chance," Pryor said in an interview last week.
He is also coming to grips with the fact that in Jay Gruden's offense, the ball is distributed far more widely than it was in Cleveland, where he was the standout featured receiver (Pryor had 140 targets in 2016; among Redskins receivers, Pierre Garcon led all with 116). In Washington, Pryor is vying for opportunities with a half-dozen or more teammates — tight ends, running backs and wide receivers alike.
"That's the tough part — to understand, in the type of offense we're in, that the ball is going to get spread around," Pryor said. "When the ball comes to you, just make the play! You have to take advantage of every opportunity on every ball that comes your way."
With Pryor among several Redskins on one-year deals, the question emerges as the 2017 season nears its midpoint: Can he assert himself as a go-to weapon in Gruden's offense enough to justify a second contract?
By necessity, reinventing himself has been a theme of Pryor's NFL career.
At 28, he is playing for his third NFL team, playing his second position and trying to develop as a wide receiver while working with his fourth quarterback in the past 14 months.
Such instability might undermine the confidence of some players, but it has only steeled Pryor, whose life has been a test of his ability, to find a home (both literal and figurative) and overcome hardships without becoming embittered.
It was his mother, Pryor said, who provided him with his first image of what strength looked like.
"Seeing my dad leave her, her being alone, working two, three, four jobs for three children — that stuff is ingrained in you," Pryor said. "A lot of time people turn to drugs to handle that. I just try to keep my mind strong, try to think as positive as possible.
". . . There are two ways you go about it: You can be negative and let [hardship] define and shape you; or you can shape it. I try to attack in a way of me shaping it. At the end of the day, I'm going to believe that I have something to do with how I come out of this thing."
On the football field, that has meant hard work and plenty of it. He trained in the offseason with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, whom he respectfully calls a "weirdo-freak" for the meticulousness of his regimen. A diligent student of the game, Pryor is an attentive, active participant in meetings, Hilliard said. He logs extra workouts before and after practice, catching 400 balls on the JUGS machine daily. And from the moment he signed with the Redskins, he has invested in his relationships with Cousins and the coaching staff to speed up his learning curve in Gruden's offense.
Hilliard calls Pryor "a joy to coach."
Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a mentor to this day, is even more effusive.
"He was such a perfectionist," said Tressel, now president of Youngstown State, of what drew him to Pryor when the young athlete was a two-sport star in high school. "He wanted to do everything for the youngsters he grew up with, and he put them on his shoulders and took them to state championships in football and basketball. He wanted to do the same in college. I think he always felt that he could make something of himself — and make a difference for his family and his home town."
Quarterback to wide receiver is a position switch that few have pulled off in the NFL — far trickier, for myriad reasons, than defensive back to wide receiver or vice versa.
At quarterback, a certain amount of protection is required and expected — if not by the pocket, by the NFL rulebook. For wide receivers, contact is a given.
"It's not for everybody," said Hilliard, a former first-round draft pick whose 12-year NFL career including eight surgeries. "If [middle linebacker] Zach Brown is standing there, ready to knock your head off, it's a little different. You got to want to do that.
There's also the art of body control.
After Pryor was released from Cincinnati in 2015, Cleveland gave him one month to train at wide receiver, a position he had never played. He spent three, four hours daily working with a personal trainer on his movement — not only drilling specific routes, but maintaining his balance whipping around cones and working on keeping his knees bent (not easy at 6-4) to get maximum explosion out of his breaks.
He worked on his eyes, too, practicing the subterfuge that makes a defender think he is about to do one thing before he does the opposite. And he is still learning to narrow his field of vision. While quarterbacks must read the entire defense, Gruden expects receivers to key their reads on one defender, which helps them play faster.
High school standout
This is still relatively new to Pryor, the most heralded athlete to come from Jeannette, Pa., a close-knit town of about 9,000 roughly 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh that lost roughly 40 percent of its population in the 1970s as industrial jobs left town.
Pryor was a star for the Jeannette Jayhawks, and it was standing room only whenever he played basketball or football.
"People rearranged their life schedule because of the Jeannette Jayhawks," recalled Jeannette Athletic Director Anthony DeNunzio, a 1997 graduate and former game-day announcer at his alma mater. And with top college coaches from all over the country streaming in to see Pryor, the town felt like a movie set. Penn State's top recruiter was in Jeannette so often, locals claim, that he went through all 35 flavors of milkshakes at the ice cream shop downtown recruiting Pryor.
Pryor ended up signing with Ohio State. Even before Pryor had committed, Tressel got a phone call in his New Orleans hotel around 2 a.m., after the Buckeyes had lost the national championship to LSU. It was Pryor.
"Coach, don't worry," he told him. "We're not going to lose any more games if I come to OSU."
Said Tressel: "He always believed he could be a difference-maker. But sometimes, we told him, that can be a problem — trying to be perfect, trying to prove everything for everybody. He wanted to do that for the Cleveland Browns and now for the Redskins. With us, he really pushed and pushed himself, and if he wasn't perfect, he's very disappointed in himself.
"I think he really has a need to be counted on. He really wants to be counted on to help."
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