Week 4 was supposed to be Robert Griffin III’s return to Washington, a massively fun homecoming for a talented-but-too-much-trouble quarterback who went from one circus-act franchise to another. Well, RG3 got hurt before that could happen, eliminating the biggest reason why anyone would tune into a game between two teams with one combined win.
So Terrelle Pryor was short changed a chance to shine once again. Up until he made the Browns’ 53-man roster this past summer, he was close to being passed over for good. He failed his one real shot at being a quarterback in Oakland. Then even when he dedicated himself to receiver, he was eventually axed by all but one of the five teams he tried out for.
That includes the team he’s facing Sunday, the New England Patriots, who are having serious misgivings. Mike Lombardi, an assistant to the Patriots’ coaching staff when the team worked out Pryor, told Bill Simmons this week, repeatedly, that, “We blew it.” Head coach Bill Belichick admitted that he didn’t expect to see the 6’4, 223-pounder do what he’s doing.
He has shown an ability to go up and get the ball, take it away from defenders with his length and ball skills and jumping ability and so forth. We obviously didn't see that before but you see that now. He does a good job for them. I mean I think you'd have to ask him and some of the people there specifically what he's done and so forth. I don't really know that.
There are no good corollaries for what Pryor has done through four weeks. Plenty of former quarterbacks have successfully turned receiver before — Julian Edelman, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Gene Washington — but they all committed to catching passes at the outset of their careers. Plenty of dedicated receivers puttered around before blossoming in their mid to late 20s — Derrick Mason, Joe Horn, Tim Brown, and Irving Fryar if you go back a ways — but never so drastically.
Pryor had just two career receptions before this season. He caught one pass for 42 yards last year. Now through four games, Pryor has 19 receptions for 290 yards, putting him on pace for 76 and 1,190 yards this season — which, good luck finding a veteran receiver who had a 2,670 percent increase in production year over year. From what I can find, only Donald Driver comes close, catching 13 passes for 167 yards for the Packers as a 26-year-old, and 70 passes for 1,064 yards at 27.
The weirdest thing may be that Pryor is resurrecting his career in Cleveland. The Browns seem to kill careers just by association. It’s the team of 26 different starting quarterbacks since 1999, whose six first-round draft picks from 2011 to 2014 are all no longer on the team. If any Browns players ever go on to have success, it’s often elsewhere.
But then, Cleveland is perhaps the only place Pryor could have succeeded. NFL teams are becoming more and more adverse to taking on elderly projects. If Pryor had any chance, it was on a desperate team with a bare chest of receivers. Fortunately, there was head coach Hue Jackson, entering his first season in Cleveland with a suspended Josh Gordon, four rookie wideouts, and a reputation for being one of the NFL’s best offensive tinkerers.
Pryor may be the perfect player for Jackson’s hodgepodge proclivities. In Week 3, the Browns used Pryor every which way to try to generate offense against the Dolphins, making him the first player since Frank Gifford in 1959 to record at least 120 yards receiving, 30 yards passing, and 20 yards rushing in the same game. With Gordon and rookie Corey Coleman out, Pryor has been the Browns’ only explosive element, making him a vital part of the team’s fortunes.
Which, if we’re being honest, may explain why the team is 0-4. Pryor is a physical phenom, with the speed and open-field skills of players who weigh 50 pounds less than he does, but he can be had. Against Washington, he was effectively shut down in the second half by Josh Norman after calling out the cornerback during the week.
But while Pryor continues his late education, we can admire the fact that we’re seeing him do anything at all. In 2012, he admitted to Sports Illustrated that he had wondered at times whether he even still loved football. We might have started celebrating him years ago if he hadn’t been so stubbornly set on being a quarterback. Once, in what feels like another lifetime, Pryor was rated as the nation’s best high school player and called “LeBron in Cleats” — hype so huge that it made a pretty great college career feel dull.
The hype wasn’t misguided, however. Pryor still is undeniably and obscenely gifted, even in NFL terms. In the current chapter of what has become a very long book, Pryor is once again showing glimpses that he’s the no-buts superstar the world thought he should be. Last Sunday, he caught his first career touchdown reception and did LeBron James’ clutch celebration — which is a premature parallel to draw for himself, but it probably was cathartic for a man who played for Ohio State, plays in LeBron’s town, and had LeBron comparisons foisted on him at a young age.
That would be a good place to close the narrative loop, but it’s hard to believe Pryor’s story — through his recruitment, Tatgate, the supplemental draft, and so, so many adjusted expectations — could be so tidy. He’s in the midst of a protracted homecoming that, if everything else about his career is any indication, will be muted and stuttering and not nearly as satisfying as, say, RG3 taking on Washington.
We’re long past paying attention to Pryor’s every move. It’s too exhausting, and anyway, watching him would mean watching Browns football, something I can’t recommend. But he’s on his way to proving, for the first time in a long time, that he’s worth caring about. It feels mostly safe to say that Terrelle Pryor is back for good, and that’s great news for all of us, but him most especially.