James Washington is determined to take a leap forward after what was ultimately a disappointing first season in Pittsburgh. And he’s put in the work, both on himself and into a budding relationship with his quarterback, to make sure that happens.
The former Biletnikoff winner totaled just 16 catches for 217 yards and a score as he struggled with the transition to life in the NFL — one that’s easy for few rookies.
“It was hard. I am not going to lie,” Washington told Steelers.com. “There were times I would go home, think to myself ways to get better and not let the team down. I was disappointed last year. I have high expectations for myself and this team has them for me.”
Add to the mix that he existed in the shadow of the game’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, while trying not to be caught in a whirlwind of drama that surrounded Brown and Pittsburgh’s other now-departed star Le’Veon Bell.
Even the reserved Washington learned he wasn’t immune to a little drama when Ben Roethlisberger called him out publicly after a missed catch, a move which put the attention more on the veteran QB and his leadership rather than his young wideout.
But that situation provided a learning opportunity and some extra motivation which helped him finish strong, recording his best games (performances of 64 and 65 yards) in two the final three weeks of the season.
But now with Brown gone and JuJu Smith-Schuster assuming the role of Big Ben’s top target, No. 2 is up for grabs. Fortunately, Washington says he’s been working on his hands.
Any perceived tiff between Washington and his QB appears to be behind them, which bodes well for their chemistry on the field and Washington’s opportunities this fall. Roethlisberger stated earlier in the spring that he was “excited” for what Year 2 holds for Washington.
“It feels good,” said Washington in response. “It lets me know the hard work I put in over the spring has paid off. It feels good to hear a team captain talk about you.”
Washington even joined several of his offensive teammates for a retreat and offseason workouts at Roethlisberger’s lake home in Georgia, further strengthening their bond.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Washington. “It was a time for us to get to know each other a little better. Last year we never really hung out so it was me looking at him, a Hall of Famer. Going there I started to look at him more as a human being like I am. I think everyone felt like I did.
“I would have approached the season differently last year. Every time I was in the huddle with him I was nervous. I didn’t want to mess up. It helped relax me a lot.”
Washington says he’s more relaxed around Roethlisberger and in the huddle. He’s adjusted to the speed of the game more and can focus on improving the details rather than dealing with the shock of just being there.
“Last year it wasn’t there because I was a different person,” Washington said. “I feel like a different person. Ten times different. I feel like a veteran even though I am only in my second year. It feels a lot better.”
Washington even sounds like a different person. The college star, who Mike Gundy bragged never said a word, comes across more confident and self-assured, a trait that probably comes naturally after a life-changing year in the pros, but that he also credits to his transformed body.
“I cut weight. I am coming in fresher. I know the playbook. I am more confident.”
Washington recently told media members that he’s lost 15 pounds by training on his own in Miami and, you guessed it, working on his dad’s farm at home.
“I went home for the first two weeks, was putting in some hard work with my dad on the farm,” said Washington. “I was trying to cut down weight. Eat less. I went to Miami and worked in the sun. Worked on strength, strong hands, all the things receivers work on.
“I feel great. I feel lighter. I feel like I am a lot quicker off the ball. It was about 40 percent farm work and 60 percent field work. Last year at the end of the year I wrote down some goals. That was my top goal, to cut weight, to get faster. Not just for me, but for the team. That was my main goal.”
Steelers OC Randy Fichtner noticed the change when Washington returned to team activities this spring.
“Generally, as a rule, that second year player, that’s their biggest opportunity for growth,” Fichtner told Steelers.com. “And it just naturally happens. You’ve seen James’ body has changed already. Jaylen’s [Samuels] body has changed already.
“They’ve committed themselves to year-round training. The professionalism has caught on. They understand, they know the environment they’re in.”
He’ll still have to prove it on the field, but the turnover in talent provided the opening Washington needed to experience a sophomore surge. And now he’s taken the steps and laid the groundwork to make that a possibility.