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For Pryor, challenge of being first-time starter extends beyond field

Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/SI

A forgotten man his first two years in the NFL, Terrelle Pryor is now firmly in the spotlight as the Raiders' starter.

It's midday of an October Friday, and with the Raiders in their bye week after losing four of their first six games, many players have left town to recharge and regroup. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor isn't among them. He's spent this morning at the team's training facility in Alameda, Calif., devouring digital cut-ups for things to work on, most notably not drifting in the pocket when taking snaps from shotgun formations.

Despite showing promise over the first half of the season -- his 58.9 completion percentage tops that of Andrew Luck, Tom Brady and Eli Manning, for instance, and his 63 rushing yards per game lead all quarterbacks -- he has been sloppy as times, especially in the previous Sunday's 24-7 loss at Kansas City. So he grabs a football and corrals quarterbacks coach John DeFillipo and prepares to head out back to an empty practice field, only to receive word from GM Reggie McKenzie that the impromptu session was impermissible because it would violate the collective bargaining agreement, which requires players to have four consecutive off days during the bye week.

Undeterred, Pryor tucks the ball and relocates to an off-site field where he practices his drops until his quads burn and sweat beads roll down his face. Then he slides into his sleek black Mercedes coupe and heads to his townhouse at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Oakland Hills. The view is spectacular. From the living room he can see the Bay Bridge to the right, and past it, San Francisco, partially hidden by a low marine layer. In the valley below sits antiquated O.co Coliseum, where he plays home games and two weeks prior led a stunning late-night upset of the Chargers, in which he completed 18-of-23 passes for 221 yards, two scores and a 135.7 passer rating.

But football is the last thing on this 24-year-old's mind right now; his body is tired, his head sleepy. He has put in more practice hours and taken more game snaps in the first six weeks of 2013 than he did in his first two years combined, when he was a backup. He wants to nap as he unfolds his 6-foot-4, 233-pound frame over a white leather chair, but he's unable to do so because punter Marquette King, a close friend, and marketing manager Tyler Acevedos are visiting. A national media outlet also is calling repeatedly in hopes of setting up a photo shoot the next day, and two other journalists from another national magazine are waiting to conduct a previously scheduled interview.

Such are the blessings and curses of being a starting quarterback in the NFL. For Pryor, who entered the league as a third-round supplemental draft choice in 2011, his time was basically his own his first two seasons. He was third on the depth chart, which meant he was basically invisible to coaches, whose time was spent preparing the starter and, to a lesser extent, the backup each week. But that changed before the season opener, when Pryor beat out Matt Flynn for the starting job. After doing only a handful of interviews each of his first two seasons, he received 50-75 requests in the first week he was formally named the starter. His life has not been the same since.

Over the first eight weeks of the season Pryor provided SI with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what young quarterbacks face when becoming a full-time starter for the first time. Talents such as Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson made it look easy last year, when they led their clubs to the playoffs as rookies. But the challenges are significant. The most notable for Pryor were learning to manage his time and outsiders' expectations; establishing himself as a leader; and dealing with adversity.

***

If Pryor didn't realize the responsibility that comes with being the face of a franchise beforehand, he did early in the season when a fan approached him. Like most who run into the former Ohio State star around town, the fan just wanted to say hello and offer a few words of encouragement. But this time was different because the fan became overly emotional. Tears ran down his face as he thanked Pryor for bringing hope to a franchise that has not had a winning season since 2002. Pryor didn't know how to respond. This was deeper than football. He knew the pain of losing a game, but seeing someone who had lost hope -- and now rediscovered it -- was a sobering lesson that he was accountable not only to his teammates and coaches, but also a fan base starved for success.

Pryor smiled and hugged the fan. Football players often are erroneously viewed as brutes who lack compassion, but the exchange clearly resonated with Pryor. Since leaving Ohio State a year early after being suspended for receiving improper benefits, he has become more spiritual and appreciative of friends and supporters. It's common for him to tell friends to text him when they get home so he knows that they've arrived safely. He is similarly concerned when it comes to his team, which he's learned leads to physical and mental fatigue.

That wasn't an issue his first two seasons, when he was the forgotten man as the No. 3 QB. He knew there was virtually no chance of playing on Sundays, so he would arrive at the Raiders' headquarters shortly before the first meeting and head home almost immediately after the last one. He worked hard in between, but when the work day was over he often was home by 3:30 or 4 p.m., stretched out on the couch, watching a movie or fiddling with a Madden controller. "I figured, 'Hey, if they don't want me to play ...'" said Pryor, who now can be found at the facility from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

The "office" has become a sanctuary for Pryor, who has become a target since moving into the starting lineup. People want to greet him, take a picture, get an autograph. Now, if he's in the mood for relative privacy, for a dinner without interruption, as he was three nights before a Week 4 game against Washington, he'll drive 20 miles east, through the Caldecott Tunnel, to the less intrusive suburb of Walnut Creek. But even there he's not entirely safe. His waiter at an upscale steak house gets tongue-tied discussing the specials because, he says, he's a huge Raiders fan; his mom even worked at a popular sports bar frequented by Raiders fans.

The reality is that there's no place for Pryor to hide, not even in his own locker room. Quarterbacks face more scrutiny than any other player. He's the person who sets the tone for the team, and how he handles a difficult situation --a loss, an injury, a locker room issue -- could have a ripple effect. If he is lackadaisical in his approach, others might be as well. If he takes short cuts, they might too.

That lesson was driven home early this season after Pryor was late for an offensive meeting because, well, he needed a few extra minutes in the bathroom. Irritated by this, offensive coordinator Greg Olson let him have it. Olson, who is liked and respected by his players, demands accountability from them. In this instance he reminded Pryor that everything he does has consequences, good or bad. If the starting quarterback doesn't think it's important to be at a meeting on time, regardless of the reason, then why would someone else?

Now, Pryor says he's so aware of Olson's words that he hesitates to hit the head even when he has the urge.

***

Photo: David E. Klutho/SI

In his first year as an NFL starter, Terrelle Pryor leads all quarterbacks with 63 rushing yards per game.

In most organizational models, the quarterback sits at the top of the pyramid when it comes to players. He's the guy who sets the tone and holds others accountable. But if you're Pryor, and you've had only one start coming into this season, how do you lead when all you've done for two years is follow? How do you make your voice ring resoundingly when for two years your role was to be seen and not heard?

"There's a respect factor involved," Pryor said. "I like to challenge everyone on the team, not just the offense. But in the beginning I couldn't do that because -- imagine that you're [defensive end] Lamarr Houston and you're a solid player, been in the league four years, one of the team captains, you've got respect in the game, and I come up to you and say, 'Hey, pick up practice.' You would look at me sideways and smirk. But if you earn your way and you get a little respect and you go up to him and say that same thing, it's different. He'll respond."

But how best to do that? Working hard and making plays are definite requirements, but there's so much more to being someone who commands respect in and outside the locker room. Lamonte Winston, the Raiders' Director of Player Engagement, has been instrumental in helping to develop Pryor as a leader. He studies him during practice and games and meets with him weekly to discuss the necessary characteristics of being an effective leader. Their early talks dealt with being a professional and managing the media. Look reporters in the eyes, Winston said. Keep your head up. If you've got a baseball cap on, raise the bill so people can see your face, he said. He reminded Pryor that the media were there to see and hear him, so don't act like it's an imposition to be there. Engage them.

Later their conversations turned to things that happened in the game. Winston can recall an early-season matchup in which Pryor was upset about something that happened on the field and vented as he came to the sideline. The rant didn't stop there, however. Pryor kept venting for everyone to hear. The next week Winston informed him that the behavior would push away teammates instead of unifying them. Pryor took the words to heart and has since been much more conscious of his words and actions in the heat of the battle.

"Terrelle is a very conscientious young man," Winston said. "He wants to do well. He wants to be really, really good. The thing he had to learn was that when you sit in the captain's chair as a quarterback, all eyes are on you. There's a default look that we all have when you think nobody is looking at you, and he didn't know that he had that. I said, 'How you carry yourself is important.' It's an unwritten part of the job, but it's there. If you don't play well, you should have the same confidence and look and approach to folks as when you do play well. We have to assume our responsibility. People want to see the consistency in your personality. That's the development of a great leader. Once Terrelle understands something from a trusted source, he'll do whatever it takes to change."

Pryor now has earned the right to have his voice heard in practice and meetings. He has no reservations about speaking up or speaking out. In practice, when the tempo is lacking, or he sees an offensive lineman dragging and sucking air, he'll sprint downfield after a handoff even if the play doesn't call for him to do so. Then he'll hustle back to the huddle, showing his teammates that he's willing to do more than what's asked of him. That he's holding himself accountable.

"I try to pick guys up and make them play to a level of expectation," he said. "I feel like I have a connection with everyone on the team, that I can challenge them without them taking it wrong. I challenge them to be great."

After a Week 1 loss to Indianapolis, which concluded with him throwing an interception at the Colts' six-yard line in the final minute with the Raiders trailing by four, Pryor was more angry than disappointed. He felt he had lost the game not by throwing the pick, but by taking a 16-yard sack two plays earlier, on first-and-goal from the 8. When told afterward that Indy's coaches were effusive in their praise of him, he said: "Tell them they won't beat me again. ... They got lucky."

Cocky or confident, it was just the right tone for a team seeking a return to relevance. If he didn't believe it, why should his teammates?

Winston thinks it's working, and he points to the reception Pryor received two weeks later when, after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday practices while recovering from a concussion, he returned to the field on Friday. Offensive linemen stopped what they were doing and approached the QB. It was a sign that they not only cared about him, but they trusted him as the guy to lead Oakland back to respectability.

"It was so awesome that I brought it up to him later," Winston said. "I wanted him to understand what had happened. That was a huge moment. When nobody was looking, when it was just him and his offensive line, there was that bonding moment. How great was that?"

***

It's a harsh reality of the NFL: First-rounders and high-price free agents traditionally get more time to work through their struggles because their teams have made significant investments in them. But when you're someone like Pryor, a third-round supplemental pick who early on had the stigma of the Ohio State scandal attached to his back, your opportunities aren't usually as plentiful. A few bad performances, an injury and -- who knows?

Pryor was reminded of this on the evening of Oct. 5, while communicating with fans on Instagram. He had played reasonably well in the Raiders' first three games -- a close loss to Indy, a win over Jacksonville and a loss at high-powered Denver -- but now fans were asking him about the Raiders' reported interest in QB Josh Freeman, who had been released by Tampa Bay two days earlier. Pryor was blind-sided.

"When I heard about it, I'm like, 'Geez, I haven't played terribly,' " Pryor said the following night after an impressive showing in the win over San Diego. "The two losses -- Indianapolis and Denver, are two of the top teams in the league. I was thinking, Maybe they [the fans] don't like me."

Pryor smiled as he said it, but McKenzie, who was not with the team when Pryor was drafted, wasn't joking when he said after the San Diego victory that his job is to assemble the best 53-man roster possible, then let players compete for playing time. In the Raiders' eyes, Pryor remains raw, particularly as a passer. That's not surprising considering he averaged just 159 pass attempts over his three seasons at Ohio State. Pryor's strength always has been his dynamic running ability, and the hope in Oakland is that he will one day complement that with an improved passing game.

In the meantime, they remain non-committal on him longterm (he's in Year 3 of a four-year rookie deal). They need to see more plays like this one against the Chargers: Midway through the fourth quarter, San Diego had cut Oakland's 24-3 lead to a touchdown. The Chargers had momentum and the Raiders faced 3rd-and-14 at their own 41; a defensive stop would've given San Diego great field position for a potential tying score. Instead, Pryor eluded a would-be sack in the pocket, sprinted to his right and lasered a 19-yard completion to Brice Butler. Four plays later, Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 50-yard field goal for a comfortable two-score lead.

Still, it's games like the following week's loss at Kansas City that give Oakland pause. There, Pryor was sacked nine times and threw three interceptions, one more than he accumulated in his first four games combined. The QB easily could've pointed to his third-string center and left tackle or to his reserve right/left guard, but Pryor put the performance on his own shoulders. He missed protection calls at times and forced plays at others.

"We were down 14-7 and we were getting first downs, but every time we got near the 50 we had to punt," he said. "Their quarterback, Alex Smith, was managing the game better than me, checking down and moving the chains. So, I was like, I've got to make something happen. I've got to make something happen. I've got guys who look up to me as a leader, and they're saying they need me to make a play. I got caught up in that trap and tried to do more than I should have."

Raiders coach Dennis Allen has said on multiple occasions that one of the things he likes about Pryor is his ability to learn from his mistakes, and the first-year starter's words suggest the coach is on to something. "I truly believe [we were] meant to run into Kansas City this early so I could learn and understand situations," Pryor said. "Managing the game is going to come up at important times. I don't know when or where, but I know it will be important."

The words proved prophetic following the bye, when the Raiders held off the Steelers after building a 21-3 lead. But the past two weeks have involved more learning and more growing pains, first a 49-20 loss to the Eagles and a 24-20 defeat against the Giants. Pryor struggled against Philadelphia and failed to finish the game because of a knee injury. It wasn't the first time he had dealt with adversity, and it won't be the last. (Pryor faces another challenge this week as the knee injury suffered against the Eagles continues to plague him.) The unanswered question is, how will he handle it? Before finally taking a nap during the bye week, he addressed the ups and downs of being a young starting quarterback as follows:

"I'm enjoying the process of getting better," he said. "I know I'm not the greatest, but I kind of amuse myself in my mind by acting like I am. That's how you've got to be. That's the first step to achieving your goal. There are so many things you have to deal with as a young quarterback that if you don't believe in yourself, who will?"

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