The Terrelle Pryor Question Mark: Can He Prove Everyone Wrong Again?

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterMarch 9, 2018

Washington Redskins wide receiver Terrelle Pryor warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)
Mark Tenally/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — There's a picture, buried somewhere in Terrelle Pryor's cell phone, that explains everything. You need to see it to understand, so he's taken a break from a delicious plate of chicken and waffles at Carmi Soul Food to search and search for it in his galleries. But he can't find it. So he brings the photo to life himself. 

The camera angle in that photo, Pryor says, gives you his perspective as he's staring down at everything. He's stepping up to the line of scrimmage, glaring down a barrel of 11 players on defense, 100,000 screaming fans, what seems like infinite acreage of field and mountains of expectations.

It truly is Terrelle Pryor vs. The World. He's responsible for everyone and everything. A quarterback with a virtual bull's-eye on his back.

He pours hot sauce on his wings, gnaws away and the significance of it sinks in—that his view in that photo, and all of its implied pressure, is the one he's had his entire life.

From the helicopters. The best recruit in Pennsylvania since Tony Dorsett, the kid who could throw the ball 65 yards and run a 4.4 recalls recruiters visiting his high school via helicopter. This all after being ranked the fifth-best basketball player in the country in seventh grade and gracing a magazine cover at 16 years old. Can he deliver on unprecedented hype?

To Ohio State. He shredded Big Ten defenses and won a Rose Bowl but also became the official face of an NCAA scandal after selling Buckeyes memorabilia and receiving discounted tattoos. Can he recover?

To the NFL, where he flashed then foundered at quarterback. Can he even play in the NFL?

To wide receiver, where even during a 1,000-yard mic-drop of a season in 2016, opponents (like Pacman Jones) called him "garbage." Why all the hate?

To the No. 1 question facing Pryor this precise moment. After betting on himself with a one-year deal in Washington last year, he tore three ligaments in his right foot (including the deltoid ligament), suffered seven bone spurs, ankle damage and plenty of bloody cartilage when safety Cody Davis drilled him in the knee in Week 2. Is he finished?

That's why Terrelle Pryor is a 6'4", 228-pound question mark to all 32 teams. A paradox. Yet where you see questions, Pryor only sees answers.

He speaks so nonchalantly, so coolly, and assures it won't take long at all to find a destination in free agency. In fact, he says, it's going to "pop fast" when free agency opens March 14. Wrapping an arm around his girlfriend, West Virginia women's basketball co-captain Chania Ray, he is the epitome of chill. That last question could hover over his head like a dark cloud forever because, well, the hype surrounding Pryor always seems to swell, deflate, swell, deflate.

Could it possibly deflate for good this offseason? Such dread never enters his mind.

"Failure is not an option," he says, simply.

Still, I connected with him via LinkedIn, and it's fitting he's on there. Pryor may have no choice but to find a new job, in a new profession, if things go wrong at his next stop.

But for now, he's too talented not to have a job…somewhere.

Someone will jump for him next week.

That's not enough for Pryor, either. He needs to be a star, not just a player. He knows he has unique talent and, because of his quarterbacking past, unique vision at receiver. Football runs in slow motion now because of that vantage point then. "It's easy for me," he says. "It's probably not easy for other guys."

Mark Tenally/Associated Press

When the wings are nothing but bones in front of him, he's asked where on the Wide Receiver Pantheon he belongs, and he isn't shy.

"I definitely believe I'm top-tier," Pryor says. "I'm going to prove that this year. That's all I need to say. I don't need to give my opinion on what I think I am, this and that.

"I'll just go do it."

"I'm back now"

The silver Suburban pulls into a parking lot off South Water Street and out steps Pryor. He's tall, at least 6'7" if you count his stringy hair sticking straight north. His hands are massive, requiring 4XL-sized gloves. With one, he offers a warm handshake. With another, he offers either an Essentia water bottle or a Gatorade in a white plastic bag.

It's easy to see why a team this offseason will talk itself into this guy being more than the 240 receiving yards he had last season—convince itself that they were a result of the injuries and that with those in the past, he's due for a massive comeback.

Pryor steps inside the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and lays face down on a trainer's table for a pre-therapy massage.

Yesterday, Pryor ran. Today, he'll focus on strengthening that right foot. And, no, fans had no clue just how much pain he was in last season. After wrecking that right foot in Week 2, he could barely cut at all. He literally faceplanted on comeback routes. He limped around on one good leg most practices. Even worse, the foot was constantly on his mind. It poisoned his game. Oh, the Redskins knew how bad it was, but Pryor also is quick to point the finger back at himself for pressing on.

He could only run north, and the Redskins Experiment was a bust.

"But I'm back now," he says.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

From the outside, it may seem that Pryor is perpetually "back" with a new, redefined identity. AAU hoops star. Historic football recruit. Ohio State superstar. Raiders starter. Developmental backup. Wide receiver project. Wide receiver starter. Free-agent disappointment. The truth is, he's simply been an eye-popping athletic anomaly his entire life—to be utilized…somehow.

That, he assures, has not changed. And others do, too. Nobody can believe how quickly he's recovering from foot surgery, be it his surgeon, Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, or his three primary physical therapists here in Pittsburgh. Pryor had surgery in November, started rehabbing in December and was running by mid-February.

First, he alternates between squats and a kettle-ball toss, reaching rounds of 225 pounds at the squat rack. At his length, one squat rep equates to approximately 3.2 normal human reps. Then he alternates between hoisting a barbell with a 45-pound plate off one foot and a WR-applicable balancing exercise. On one foot, Pryor must catch and throw balls back to one physical therapist while another slaps at his arms.

He's been zeroing in on each of his five toes, too. One of his PTs, Erica Coffey, is proficient in ballet.

Soon, Pryor is doing this same drill while walking.

"My right foot is stronger than my left," he says. "I was sore earlier. I'm not right now."

The room is packed with everyone from potbellied 40-year-olds to senior citizens. Pryor stands out. Eyes flicker his way the entire workout. His session continues on to a drill where a band attached to a wall is strapped around his waist. One PT, Andrew Lynch, signals one of five cones for Pryor to dart toward and—on one foot—Pryor must catch a football thrown by another PT. Too easy. After a few lollipops, Pryor asks Mike Micca to gun it, and Micca starts uncorking fastballs.

One errant throw nearly takes out a woman in an Antonio Brown jersey, but otherwise Pryor makes it look easy.

He rips through "explosives" at the squat rack, firing up on those toes. He rips through a side-shuffling drill on an exercise ball.

Lastly, repeatedly, he fires out in an all-out, 15-yard sprint…while catching a dropped tennis ball halfway.

Rehab sessions are supposed to be something like a trip to the DMV—boring, tedious, infuriating, necessary—and here's Pryor turning his into a daily spectacle. He asks for more. And more. And more. And, per usual, needs to be shut down after sneaking in an ab workout because Pryor never wants to stop.

Tomorrow, he'll hit the pool. The next day, he'll do resistance training. And the next, he'll hit the field. His cousin, Tyler Batts, shakes his head nearby and says he's never seen Pryor take a shortcut.

Back on the training table, foot wrapped in ice, Pryor doesn't say much himself. Instead, a cold, scowling expression screams Any questions?

Teams do have questions, of course.

Pryor is more than willing to answer, too.


"I'm going to be on your mind"

Fifteen feet away, Terrelle Pryor and his girlfriend watch my horrendous, Austin Powers-like shimmy of a parallel park that leads to a back tire creeping onto the East Carson Street sidewalk, and—miraculously—Pryor does not laugh. In fact, he offers to pay my parking ticket if a cop spots this during our lunch. Instead, I nestle my truck into a new spot one block away and, inside the dimly lit Carmi, Pryor breaks down the menu with Vince Lombardi In the Alley! precision.

He wants this soul-food novice to get the best possible experience, and the chicken and waffles are a must.

Every 15 minutes or so, he kisses his girlfriend on the forehead.

His meal is late. He doesn't fret. This is the theme.

Despite seeing his football career drift into limbo, Pryor is calmer than calm. It's as if he already knows how 2018 will unfold. He will sign with a team, he will start, he will star.

"I'm looking forward to this year," he says, "to making some noise. I will. I'm excited about that."

Because while we view him as something different every year, Pryor knows he's not only that sight-to-be-seen athlete but also a son who watched his mother work four different jobs as he grew up. A kid who learned the value of a warm night's sleep with the family's electricity and heat sporadically going out at home. Once, they were forced to live out of a hotel. Of course, he'll cherish every snap.  

Mental toughness, Pryor assures, drives him through everything.

He needed it as team…after team…after team…said thanks but no thanks to him as a QB in the NFL.

As the Raiders gave up on Al Davis' final draft pick after the 2013 season despite glimmers of hope—the 112 rushing yards against the Colts, the win over the Chargers, the 382 total yards in a loss to Philly.

As the Seahawks cut him in 2014 when he had so much confidence he'd make the team, one Seattle source said, that he'd gotten his own place in town. The news was so devastating and unexpected, it brought him to tears.

As that offseason alone, he worked out at quarterback for nine teams—going 52-of-52, he says, in one of them—and all nine said "No."

As he organized offseason workouts just to try to make the Chiefs as a fourth-stringer in 2015.

"It's frustration, but it's hunger," Pryor says. "You get hungry, man. It pushes you. It's the funniest thing. I always use this Tupac [interview]. He was knocking on the door, and after the fourth or fifth knock, he's picking the lock. Stuff like that. You have to find a way."

In the "right situation," Pryor still thinks he could've made it at quarterback. He even uses Russell Wilson's rise in Seattle as an example. Eventually, though, the only way to pick the lock at the NFL's doorstep was to embrace wide receiver, and Pryor promptly made history. He became only the second player ever to log 1,000 yards receiving in one season and 1,000 passing in another. It had been five decades since Marlin Briscoe achieved the same feat.

The secret to his instant success was simple. Pryor terrified with the long ball and then went to work underneath.

He saw no need to get caught up in the zillion branches of a route tree.

"S--t was easy, man. A thousand yards is easy," Pryor says. "If you get the targets and the game plan gets you the ball—get open. Man to man. Whatever. It's easy. It's not hard to do. It's all about targets. It's all about getting the right targets. You have to always threaten the DB, the defense down the field. Once you let me run past once, you're not going to let me run past you again.

"Inflicting that…making him think that, 'If they go deep two or three times a game, I ain't getting beat deep,' they'll back off. Hell, I'll take these 20 yards under here. It's easy.

"Some people make it harder than what it is, man. I'll leave it at that."

So here's where it gets strange. When he was finally building himself an NFL career, a slew of players across the NFL were tearing him down. Pacman called him "garbage." College teammate Alex Boone said he "hated everything about him." College/pro teammate Brian Hartline basically warned all NFL teams they'd regret handing Pryor a long-term deal, adding "You had one year. You're a flash in the pan." Janoris Jenkins supplied some NSFW tweets.

Bring this up and Pryor hardly blinks.

He even smiles.

"They're talking about you, man! They're talking about you," he says. "They love you. They hate you. Whatever. But they're still thinking about you. People are always hating, but you're on their mind. I'm going to be on your mind."

In his reality, the only reality that matters to him, Pryor knows he's the one who lives in the film room Mondays and Tuesdays, the one texting teammates like Andrew Hawkins at 1 a.m. for tips, the one who's at the facility before anyone else because he wants to provide for everyone in his inner circle. When he's 100 percent, Pryor promises to work out twice a day, because he insists greatness is a "chase." The fact that this chase has no destination is his fuel.

Sure, Pryor gets that people view him as a "temper guy." Even his girlfriend rolls her eyes when he brings up the T-word. Yes, it's there. But where the Pacmen of the world see an ornery malcontent unworthy of millions, Pryor only sees raw competitiveness.

Chances are, that competitiveness will piss people off on Sundays.

"I'm going to show you how I work," he says. "You're going to feel that."


"I'm different"

He better be humbled. Pryor's literally been through half the NFL. It didn't work out in Washington and, quite possibly, that had nothing to do with shredding that foot. Maybe NFL defenses caught up to Pryor, and he'll need to update that LinkedIn account soon.

His theory is simple: Defenses knew he was hobbling, started pressing him, and he became as dangerous as a plastic butter knife.

Usually, Pryor craves press coverage. Destroys press coverage. Bring up Josh Norman in conversation, and Pryor notes in a low rumble that he killed Norman all training camp. So, here, Pryor offers a friendly warning to all NFL corners looking to step into his space at the line of scrimmage.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

"I'll be back next year. Get right in my face. It's on."

Because he knows what's backing up the bravado.

His work at UPMC: "I like working on the little things that people don't think matter. I want that edge over another person."

His football IQ: "If you throw new playbooks or plays at me, I'm going to know it." To which, Batts holds two fingers seven inches apart to show just how thick the Chiefs playbook was. That was one advantage of clinging to quarterback as long as he did—he learned half of the league's offenses.

His motivation: "It's a mentality. What's the reason you do things? For me, it's my son and my future family. Every single day, you've got to find something that motivates you to get up and do things like I did today."

On cue, Micca slides into our booth for lunch and explains that UPMC has been applying cutting-edge research to their work with Pryor. They learned that elite athletes, like Pryor, possess a specific trigger in their brain that allows them to react faster than normal humans in training. Which is why they've pushed them, why they've gotten so creative with their workouts. The Pryor that Micca sees is weeks ahead of schedule, "crushing every aspect" of his therapy.

When Pryor isn't crushing it at UPMC, he's saving his grandmother. Really. The previous day, his grandmother fell and injured her hip. For the first time all day, worry blankets his face. His eyes glaze over. What would've happened if he wasn't there? Pryor knows he needs to get her Life Alert soon. That night, thank God, he was downstairs and his grandma was rushed to the hospital.

That's been his life the last few months. Right place, right time, always with an answer.

Usually, the hype around Terrelle Pryor is just that. Noise generated by scouting websites and message boards and urban legends. Now that all of that noise has evaporated for good, Terrelle Pryor is suddenly the one supplying a promise.

You haven't seen the last of him.

"I'm different, man. I'm different. I like to work, man. I like to learn. It's in my nature. I feel like you're born with that. You're born with wanting to go to the next level."

That's what he'll be after wherever he lands. He loved playing in Cleveland, for the same fans who once rooted for him in Columbus. He felt their love fueling his play. Maybe a Browns reunion works out. He's open to anything.

What should people know about Pryor that they don't? He says he's quiet.

His girlfriend shakes her head. OK, fine. Pryor concedes there's a caveat.

Off the field, yeah, he's quiet.

On it, he won't be, can't be, in 2018.


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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