Case study: Terrelle Pryor

Speedy treatment for Pryor's inaccuracies could have far-reaching applications

Originally Published: November 12, 2013
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 25 QB Issue. Subscribe today!

ABSTRACT
Subject is a 24-year-old starting quarterback for the Oakland Raiders currently in his third year in the National Football League. Subject is known throughout his profession for extraordinary athletic ability. 
He presents with symptoms common among inexperienced NFL quarterbacks: inaccuracy, unsteadiness and inability to deal with the pressure that comes with the game's larger moments. He shows occasional difficulty identifying defensive schemes, primarily blitzes, and struggles to make precise decisions in the fractions of seconds allotted for them. Subject admits he spent his first two seasons with the Raiders with no earthly idea how to play quarterback in the NFL. Purpose of this study is to observe and report on subject's quest to make the most of his prodigious physical gifts, for possible application by similarly endowed future NFL quarterbacks (Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Braxton Miller) and teams that might employ them.

CASE HISTORY
Subject has started eight games in his professional career, and he admits that his athletic ability -- he is 6'4", 233 pounds and once ran a 4.36 40 -- lends itself to feelings of grandiosity. Before his professional career, he was consistently able to outperform opponents solely on the basis of talent. In interviews, he fondly remembers the days at Jeannette (Pa.) Senior High School and Ohio State University when he knew nobody on the field could stop him. This feeling carried over to the NFL, and it manifests itself through a desire to make big plays when the situation calls for small ones.

Subject exhibits a rare level of self-awareness for someone his age and in his station in life. His demeanor is expressive and joyful. He is remarkably open about the gaps in his knowledge and remarkably fierce about his determination to close them. His desire is raw and stark, his ambition an open wound.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Ben MargotPryor admits he spent his first two seasons with the Raiders with no idea how to play QB in the NFL.

Perhaps because of his high expectations, subject tends to let the hot blame of defeat wash over him. He reports that his girlfriend "says I act like I've lost every game," even those his team has won. His well-developed sense of personal responsibility is best exemplified by his reaction to the Raiders' loss at Kansas City in Week 6. In that game, subject was sacked nine times and threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Afterward, he said he -- and he alone -- lost the game.

In a subsequent interview, subject said: "I turned the ball over and gave them plus-territory three times, and one was a pick six. I lost the game. Period."

Subject's complicated past is vital to the overall assessment. He was the top high school player in the country coming out of Jeannette, and he chose Ohio State after a protracted cross-country recruiting battle that assumed the narrative form of an episode of Judge Judy.

Subject's matriculation at Ohio State ended after three years, when the university barred him from any contact with the athletic program for five years in the aftermath of his role in NCAA violations that included trading memorabilia for tattoos. When he entered the NFL's 2011 supplemental draft -- and before the Raiders took him in the third round -- the NFL made the unprecedented decision to uphold a suspension by the NCAA that forced him to sit out the first five games of his pro career.

Subject is clearly aware of, and determined to change, any negative perceptions that persist in the public consciousness. "He has his own reasons for proving things," said Raiders center Andre Gurode.

Subject's combination of talents -- size, speed, arm strength -- is perfect for the read-option, the offense he ran at Ohio State and the one that gained traction in the NFL as he entered the league. But it is evident that subject's development as a potential NFL quarterback was hindered by the ease with which he ran through and passed over inferior opponents in college. Ohio State's reliance on his unconscious competence came at the expense of training (reading sophisticated defenses, acquiring pocket presence, learning proper throwing technique) that would have prepared him better for the transition to the pro game. His inability to grasp concepts his first two years in Oakland led observers to joke that he was sending a previously unknown twin -- the one who didn't play football -- to practice.

Perhaps as a result of uncertainties in his past, subject now approaches this new opportunity to start -- an opportunity that arose from serial failures of previous Raiders quarterbacks -- with a toddler's joy. During a game against Washington, which subject sat out with concussion symptoms, he repeatedly entered the field of play to exhort his teammates. Subject has a photograph of himself standing on the field while Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon points and implores an official to throw a flag.

"These past two years, there hasn't been someone on this team who has given spark and enthusiasm," subject said. "I try to do that as much as I can."

Interviews with subject make it evident that his goal is to be not just competent but extraordinary. "There are a lot of things I don't understand that I want to understand," he said. "I watch film and ask, What's going to happen when I do understand all those things?"

Terrelle PryorAP Photo/Tom Hauck

METHODOLOGY
Author's first observation of subject was in August 2007, when subject was a senior in high school. Author described subject's demeanor at the time as "the definition of nonchalance." His aloofness -- he spoke to author without interest for less than five minutes -- could have been attributable to youth and his high-profile recruitment, which created unwanted national attention for the then-18-year-old subject.

Author's most recent observation and 90-minute interview created a vastly different impression. Subject is now animated and personable, making strong eye contact while giving reflective and lengthy answers to questions. Subject, who repeatedly addressed author as "Sir," appears to have matured greatly and is far more comfortable in the public eye.

TREATMENT
Despite reported misgivings of members of the Raiders coaching staff, subject made his first NFL start in the final game of last season. He reports that the experience served two purposes: 1) It showed him how good he can be, and 2) it showed him how much work was ahead of him.

With the encouragement of Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson, subject sought assistance over the summer from well-known throwing coach and sports psychologist Tom House, a former major league pitcher whose knowledge of the intricacies of football is admittedly limited. Subject clearly has warm regard for House -- the relationship appears to have father-son undertones -- but subject joked, "He doesn't understand anything about football." Subject reports that House has difficulty with football lingo, mispronouncing the word "route" as "root" and mistaking a quarterback's "hitch" with "hitter."

Despite his inability to master the vernacular, House is an expert in the field of throwing mechanics and has tutored quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Alex Smith, as well as subject's predecessor in Oakland, Carson Palmer.

House's intensive 30-day treatment plan included mental training intended to boost self-esteem and create the type of Olympian bearing needed to lead a successful team. They talked about the way subject calls plays and his presence around teammates, including "being assertive without being aggressive." One of subject's assignments was to study himself in the mirror while brushing his teeth. House said, "I told him to think about three things: The person you are. The person you want to be. The person other people see."

The training also covered the mechanics of throwing. On a late afternoon in October, subject sat at a table in the lobby of the Raiders' facility in Alameda, Calif. Asked to detail the specifics of House's instruction, subject described a series of epiphanies. He talked about five-step drops, setups and release points. It soon became clear that words alone could not do justice to the experience. The excitement bubbled up inside him, causing him to push back his chair and stand to demonstrate.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesPryor is considered a run-first QB, but he's been one of the most effective passers in the league on third down this season.

First, subject took a five-step drop like someone whose ankles were connected by a 30-inch metal bar. This is the way he takes his drops now -- hips low, feet apart, like a basketball player sliding up the court hawking a ballhandler -- with the ball cocked at his right ear. "This is the way Tom taught Drew Brees," subject said, and the image springs to mind: Brees going back to pass, almost hopping, then releasing the ball as if the entire process, from snap to throw, is a single, fluid motion.

Subject moved back toward the chair and said, almost embarrassed, "This is how I used to drop back." He stood straight, all 6'4" of him, then took a five-step drop, his shoes clapping with each step. Subject laughed and said: "Can you believe that? When Tom helped me with my balance, the ball came out of my hand a lot faster. When I'm taught the right way, it sticks."

Next, subject stood in his prerelease position, eyes focused on an imaginary downfield, and asked author to pretend the inside of subject's right ankle has an eye. That eye must be pointed at the target; in essence, it must be able to "see" the target. In practical terms, this means a throw toward the left sideline must be made with the right foot "closed" nearly 45 degrees, allowing the "ankle eye" clear vision of the receiver. A throw to the right sideline requires the ankle to "open" nearly 45 degrees. This adjustment is something House treats as perfunctory but subject sees as both revolutionary and revelatory.

Subject's recent progress led him to tell local reporters that he didn't know how to throw a football before working with House. "Obviously, I could throw a football," subject later amended. "What I meant was, if you throw balls and you miss and you don't know why, you don't know how to throw the ball. Now if I miss, I know why."

As his first season as a starter has progressed, subject's condition has been treated with repetition and film study. He reports that a normal day begins with breakfast at the Raiders' facility at 5:45 a.m. and ends at roughly 7 p.m., with the conclusion of three hours of post-practice and post-meeting film work. Most of the film study centers on the Raiders' upcoming opponent, but a surprising amount consists of subject and Olson, the offensive coordinator, watching Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

"I've learned the best from watching Peyton," subject said. "I've learned you don't always have to throw it up in there. You can take second and eight, second and seven. It's positive movement. It's manageable. Watch Peyton: He doesn't have many third-and-10 situations."

Managing a game is better stated as managing expectations. Subject has learned one must occasionally expect less to achieve more. "I watch Peyton," said subject, "and I realize something: It's okay to punt sometimes."

OUTCOME
Subject reports his progress is going as expected: continuous but uneven. He is still prone to view each snap as a potential big play. (With cause: He has shown a propensity for producing them.) His improvement as a passer is most evident on slants and deep-middle passes, delivered with timeliness and assurance.

Moreover, subject exhibits a resolve to treat setbacks as learning experiences, not indictments of his abilities. He works diligently to master the finer points of his profession.

In Week 8, while preparing for the Steelers, subject defended the read-option against charges that it's a fad. "You'll see," subject said like a man holding secrets. "Things will open up. I can show you right now on film."

On the first play from scrimmage, from his own 7-yard line, subject kept on a read-option and ran untouched -- into the secondary, across midfield, on his way to the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history.

For one moment, subject's promise was real. The hard work, preparation and physical gifts merged, and a large man ran downfield by himself. Repeated viewings showed him looking over each shoulder to see if anyone was gaining on him. Close observation revealed a smile on subject's face.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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