Stephanie Apstein, MMQB
The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s only winless team, but there’s a silver lining: The story of how a failed QB became Cleveland’s No. 1 wideout.
It’s a late-September morning, just a hint of a chill in the air, and all eyes are on Terrelle Pryor as he steps to the line of scrimmage during one of the defining moments of his career. He isn’t lined up against an opponent, or wearing a uniform, or anywhere near an NFL stadium for that matter, but the energy of the crowd hijacks his focus when someone shouts, “Hey, T.P., can we get some help over here?”
It’s 2015 and Pryor has just been cut by his fourth NFL team in 12 months. He’s running through drills on a high school field in Harrison City, Pa., three miles from where he grew up and 25 miles east of Pittsburgh. The former Ohio State quarterback has finally taken the hint to reinvent himself, and he figures becoming a wideout might be his best—only—chance of hanging on.
On the other side of the field a gym class is playing kickball. Someone boots the ball past the infielders, beyond the outfielders and right at Pryor as he prepares to burst into a route. By the time Pryor hears the cry for help and figures out what’s going on, the kicker is rounding third and headed for a home run. Pryor scoops up the bouncing yellow ball and fires it some 50 yards on a line, missing the runner by mere inches at the plate but still sending the teens into a frenzy. “We all figured it was going to be a cakewalk,” says athletic trainer Larry Cooper, who was leading the class. “Then this rocket comes flying. You could actually hear it whistle.”
With a grin, Pryor turns back to his drills and assures himself, “I still got it.”
The nation’s No. 1 recruit coming out of high school in 2008 … only the second true freshman to start at quarterback for the Buckeyes … the Rose Bowl MVP his sophomore year and the Sugar Bowl MVP his junior year … Terrelle Pryor was an electrifying, dual-threat, can’t-miss QB—until he wasn’t. Caught up in Ohio State’s memorabilia and tattoos scandal, Pryor left school early and became a third-round pick of the Raiders in the 2011 supplemental draft. He started 10 games over three seasons in Oakland, went 3-7, and threw nine touchdowns to 12 interceptions. The career trajectory only got worse.
Pryor was traded to the Seattle in April 2014 for a seventh-round pick, and then cut four months later. The Chiefs signed him in January 2015, and then cut him four months later. When Hue Jackson, his old coach in Oakland, offered him a chance to become the Bengals’ backup, Pryor lasted only a month before dropping to No. 4 on the depth chart. A bizarre controversy in which Pryor tweeted three videos of himself throwing passes during minicamp practices led to his release in June 2015.
And yet his faith in himself never wavered.
“There are detours all over the place,” Pryor says. “If I don’t believe, who the hell else is gonna believe?”
The Browns are Cleveland’s reminder that you can’t have it all. The Cavaliers are the reigning NBA champions, the Indians won the American League pennant, and the winless Browns are a lock to finish with a losing record for the ninth straight year. Their season was perfectly encapsulated in Week 8 when fans in the Dawg Pound held up their signs out of order: GPODAWUND, indeed.
One of the few uplifting stories, however, has been Pryor’s evolution from a what-the-hell experiment to a reliable starter. Through nine games he has a team-high 46 receptions for 579 yards and four touchdowns; he’s also among the league’s top 20 receivers by virtually every measure. (And he’s done it without consistent quarterback play: six players have taken at least 10 snaps and combined to throw for 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.)
In Week 3, Pryor put all his talents to use against the Dolphins: He caught eight passes for 144 yards, rushed four times for 21 yards and a touchdown, and completed three passes for 35 yards. It was the first time a player had had three rushes, three receptions and three completed passes in a game since Billy Kilmer did it for the 49ers in 1964. Pryor also played a down at safety, and he would have gladly tried kicking field goals and selling concessions had he been asked.
“It’s far from a gimmick,” says Browns receivers coach Al Saunders. “This is legitimate. This is an outstanding athlete who has made a transformation. You couldn’t find him on the depth chart when training camp started, and the first game he starts and the third game he does something that nobody’s done in 50 years? …We haven’t even scratched the surface of his capabilities. He’s just starting to write cursive. Pretty soon it’s going to get neater and nicer and faster. It goes from print to cursive to writing a book.”
Pryor has always had the physical makeup of a wideout: He’s 6’5″, 250 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds. His soft hands and leaping ability also made him one of the country’s top basketball recruits coming out of high school. “The most important quality a wide receiver can have is the ability to catch the football,” Saunders says. “He can do it from any angle, any body position. He was a tremendous basketball player. He has the ability to use his body [to block out a defender] in a contested environment.”
Shortly after the Bengals cut him 18 months ago, Pryor took to the high school field in Pennsylvania and tried putting himself through receiver drills. Those “drills” consisted of a few scattered cones and Pryor, like a bored kid in the backyard, throwing the ball up and running underneath it to make the catch. “I’m out there grinding,” Pryor says, laughing, “but I have no clue what I’m doing!”
“It’s like someone bringing you a great engine and telling you to build a car around it.”
Brendan Reddy, a Division III defensive back who grew up watching Pryor play on Friday nights, was running laps around the field and offered to throw a few passes. Reddy then called his personal trainer and said, “Hey, Terrelle Pryor’s over here running routes. You should come help him out; he looks super raw.”
Tim Cortazzo, a high school opponent of Pryor’s and a former college receiver at Toledo, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist who had recently opened his own practice, First Step Quickness. After stopping by the field and connecting with Pryor, Cortazzo set to work drawing up a training plan (short shuttles; suicides; circuits of squats, hurdles and band jumps), a nutrition plan (grilled chicken, whole grains, nothing that could have even smelled a deep fryer), and a drill plan (highlighted by so-called “wave” routines in which Pryor would have to change direction to catch randomly tossed balls).
They had to start completely from scratch; on Day 1 Cortazzo taught Pryor how to properly get into a receiver’s stance.
“It’s not every day that a 27-year-old guy just shows up in the middle of his NFL career and says, Hey, I want to play a different position,” Cortazzo says. “But it was fun. It’s like someone bringing you a great engine and telling you to build a car around it.”
For two months Pryor worked with Cortazzo six hours a day, six days a week, doing agility drills, practicing downfield blocking, learning the nuances of every conceivable route, watching film of the day’s work, lifting and then swimming for recovery. Cortazzo also built a five-foot-tall receiver arch out of PVC pipe—think of a croquet wicket for humans to run through—that forced Pryor to lower his center of gravity. High school quarterbacks were brought in to make throws, and Pryor made sure to tutor them on their craft too; he’d occasionally pause a drill to correct their timing or accuracy or arm angle.
Cortazzo would drop into bed around 11 p.m. each night, so exhausted that he’d immediately drift off to sleep. More often than not he’d get a call from Pryor, who wanted to review that day’s session and would cue up the video over FaceTime so they could watch together. How does this route look? Are my feet right coming out of the breaks? If the defender lined up over there, how would I react?
The Browns claimed Pryor off waivers in June 2015 and included him on their 53-man roster coming out of training camp, but he pulled a hamstring before the opener and was cut. He flew home and picked back up with Cortazzo while also criss-crossing the country for workouts with NFL teams, which never went anywhere. Cleveland brought him back in December, at which point Pryor began his steady ascent from No. 8 to No. 1 on the depth chart, outlasting some of his competition—Josh Gordon, suspension then rehab; Corey Coleman, broken right hand—and outplaying the rest.
This season Pryor has drawn coverage from top corners such as Josh Norman, Malcolm Butler and Darrelle Revis. He scored his first touchdown against Norman in Week 4, catching a nine-yard pass after flattening the top of his slant route to negate double coverage—an extremely nuanced move for such a raw wideout. (He celebrated by pantomiming LeBron James’s floor push and chalk throw.) In Week 5, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said of Pryor, “It’s a problem to defend that type of a player.” Before their Week 8 showdown, Revis called Pryor “one of the best athletes in the NFL today.”
“He’s been incredible,” says teammate and fellow wideout Andrew Hawkins. “I’ve told him, ‘If you’d switched to receiver earlier, you’d be sitting on a hundred million dollars.’ ”
The most constant element of Terrelle Pryor’s NFL career has been Hue Jackson, who was his coach in Oakland, his offensive coordinator in Cincinnati and his head coach again in Cleveland. Not until they crossed paths in Cincinnati did Jackson begin picturing his mediocre signal-caller as an exceptional receiver. The unrefined quarterback lacked the passing experience of a starter and the deferential personality of a backup. But that athleticism …
“He’s like a gazelle,” says Jackson. “Any time he took off and ran, it would put [him as a receiver] in your mind.”
Jackson didn’t force it, though. “I couldn’t bring myself to kill anybody’s dream,” he says with a sigh. “You have to make your mind up to give yourself to it. This is a tough sport. You’ve gotta be all in. You can’t do it by degrees. I didn’t think I was the right person to say, Hey, look, by the way, you’re gonna have to play another position if you want to stay in the National Football League. He figured it out.”
In the end, Pryor realized he loved the game more than the position—the hit to his ego was worth staying on the field. He still won’t admit that he didn’t have what it takes to make it as an NFL quarterback, but he lights up when he talks about his new life. “When you’re the QB, you get all the glory, but when you lose it’s all on you,” he says. “I don’t gotta worry about that no more. I just try to make plays for the team.” What excites him most is how the game went from being 11-vs.-11 to a one-on-one battle, wideout against cornerback. “It’s making somebody look bad,” he says. “You having success over another man. That’s what gets me going every day. He had to stop you—and he didn’t.”
Pryor loves the expression, variously attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous, Nike and Thomas Jefferson: “To go somewhere you’ve never been before, you have to do something you’ve never done before.” It’s why he’s putting in 13-hour workdays, arriving at the Browns’ practice facility around 6 a.m. and staying until 7 p.m.—if not later. “He gets so into it,” Hawkins says. “You gotta kind of bring him back down sometimes. He cares about it so much, which is awesome, but you gotta be able to sleep at night. The dude will FaceTime me from the facility at midnight, like, Hey, I was going over this play—I’m home at 6 o’clock! I got kids. Why are you FaceTiming me at midnight? But that’s who he is.”
When he needs a break from football, Pryor will crack open a Spanish book. He has six credits to go before he gets his college degree, and he’s trying to take a course a semester. He can’t imagine explaining to his 2-year-old son, Terrelle II, that Dad didn’t bother to get his degree. This class is online through BYU, but they all count toward his B.A. in criminology from Ohio State. Five years after the NCAA scandal and a year and a half after the NFL had given up on him, Pryor looks back at the journey and smiles. “Obviously I’m doing pretty well,” he says, “but it could be so much better. And it will be better.”
A free agent after the season ends, Pryor stands to make a lot of money in his first “receiver” contract. (The $42 million, four-year extension that Rams wideout Tavon Austin signed in August could be a starting point for negotiations.) But Pryor has already revealed the motivating force behind his metamorphosis into a wide receiver.
Before training camp opened in late July, Pryor visited Randy Moss for a quick training session with the six-time Pro Bowler. Moss lives in Charlotte, an hour and a half from Pittsburgh by plane, but Pryor instead got behind the wheel of his gray Suburban. When he showed up, Moss took one look at his protégé and asked, “Why the hell did you drive here?”
“I wanted it to be a tough road,” Pryor says now. “I could afford the ticket, but I don’t want to take a flight. You just go to the gate, get on the plane, fly. The mindset I had was, The reason I am going there is to work, and I don’t want it easy.”
He just wants to play football.