The most important part of a journey often is the people you meet along the way.
When Greg Ward was released from the Eagles’ practice squad 15 months ago, just a week after he had failed for the second straight summer to make the 53-man roster, he never considered that it would end up being the best thing that had ever happened to his career.
If the Eagles hadn’t shown him the door then, he never would have signed with the short-lived spring league, the Alliance of American Football. And if he hadn’t signed with the AAF, he never would have met Keith Williams.
Williams was the wide-receivers coach for the San Antonio Commanders, the AAF team with which Ward played. While the league lasted only eight weeks before folding, Ward credits Williams with helping him take his development to the next level during the short time they were together.
“He helped me so much, helped me improve my game a lot,’’ Ward said. “He was always emphasizing that I need to sink my hips on routes. I learned a lot from him.’’
Ward caught 22 passes in eight AAF games. He was eventually re-signed by the Eagles, failed for a third time to make the team out of training camp, was re-signed to the practice squad, was promoted for one game in which he played just two snaps earlier this season, and finally was promoted for good on Nov. 23, only because of injuries to the team’s top three wideouts.
In the four games since his promotion, Ward has caught 18 passes, including the game-winning touchdown against Washington on Sunday. He had two big catches on the Eagles’ final two scoring drives in their Monday night comeback over the Giants a week earlier, and had seven catches in all against Washington, including four on the winning drive.
“The thing I used to preach to Greg and the rest of our guys was you have to be ready to seize the moment,’’ said Williams, a former college coach at Nebraska, Tulane, and Fresno State who trains more than a dozen NFL wideouts, including Ward, fellow Eagle Nelson Agholor, and the Chiefs’ Sammy Watkins.
“Greg’s at a level from a focus standpoint that when that moment came for him, I knew he’d be ready for it,’’ Williams said. ‘’It’s one thing to get a chance. It’s another to go out there and capitalize on it and then build from it.’’
Ward is a former quarterback at the University of Houston who had to make the conversion to wide receiver after he went undrafted in 2017 and was signed by the Eagles.
“To some degree, he’s still learning the position,’’ Williams said. “There still are different types of plays that he can make that he hasn’t made yet.
“I think he can be a great punt returner. He returned a punt in the AAF for a touchdown where he had to make some guys miss. He’s a relentless blocker even for his size [5-foot-11, 174 pounds].
“He can make all of the plays that guys make from the slot position. He’s got strong hands and is faster than you think. Really quick. And smart. I think his best football still is ahead of him.’’
Proving doubters wrong
Ward is a confident player who never has doubted himself, even though others in the Eagles organization clearly have.
Last month, before Ward was promoted to the 53, I asked offensive coordinator Mike Groh why, given the underperformance of some of the team’s other wideouts, including Mack Hollins, who managed to go seven games without catching a pass before the team finally saw fit to release him, the Eagles weren’t willing to give Ward a chance.
He gave me the kind of patronizing smile that coaches often give people, particularly reporters, who they think know a lot less about the game than they do, and said, “Greg has done a terrific job for us at practice [on the scout team]. He makes a couple of plays every day out there, and he’s certainly somebody that we have a lot of confidence in should we need to call on him. I don’t know when that might be, but he’ll be ready when it comes.’’
Groh was right about that last part. Through every rejection, Ward has steadfastly believed that his time would come and he was ready when it did.
“You’ve got to look down the road,’’ Ward said after the game Sunday in Washington. “You can’t just look at how things are right now. You’ve got to keep working and keep praying and keep your head down and stay with it.’’
The Greg Ward that Keith Williams met and coached in San Antonio earlier this year wasn’t a kid feeling sorry for himself or thinking he was too good to be playing in some low-level spring league. He arrived there ready to work, looking to get better.
“He actually got there really late,’’ Williams said. “He might’ve only had five or six practices with us before we settled on the final roster. But he just came, and, from the moment he got there, he was 100 percent focused and locked in. He learned everything as quickly as he could and did it at a high level on the field.’’
Ward has an off-the-charts work ethic that made coaching him easy, Williams said.
“I can’t say enough about his work ethic and the level of focus he puts into work every day,’’ he said. “He’s hungry. He’s eager to learn everything he can. He was willing to use his free time, pre- and post-practice and on off days [to do extra work].
“We constantly communicated by phone, and he would text me about plays in practice and getting into the real nitty-gritty fine points and specifics of plays he might’ve had a question about. He’s an impressive young man. There’s not many guys that self-driven without having to push them.’’
Benefiting from QB background
Ward has acknowledged that his quarterback experience helps him as a wide receiver. It has given him an understanding of coverages and route-running that many others at his position don’t have. It also has helped him establish a rapport with Carson Wentz.
“His quarterback background, without a doubt, gives him an advantage as far as film-watching and preparation in general,’’ Williams said. “His attention to detail is way above par. And he understands why the attention to detail is so important because he’s played quarterback.
“Some of the dialogue we would have in meetings, I never heard a wideout talk like that. I’ve been coaching 20 years and never heard a wideout talk from the perspective that he would about a certain play or certain coverage or certain concept.
“You can absolutely hear the quarterback perspective coming out of him in the way he would explain things and explain himself, and the way he recognized coverages or the decisions he said he would make based off of the film. It was definitely coming from a quarterback standpoint.
“He would talk about fronts and the way the coverage would adjust. It was almost like the wideouts were meeting with the quarterback and they were all talking like he was the quarterback.’’
Ready for the call
Ward was playing well when the AAF folded in early April. It provided yet one more opportunity for him to feel sorry for himself and wonder whether he ever would make it in the NFL.
“He was playing well and he knew he was playing well and getting better every day,’’ Williams said. “Greg enjoys improving. He’s a hungry student, an eager learner. And he knew he was on the right track in terms of that. So he was disappointed when the league shut down."
“Naturally, you don’t know what’s next. You don’t know if you’re going to get that call from the Eagles or anybody else. The idea of that was something we talked about. But I knew if he got that call, he would be ready.’’
The Eagles re-signed Ward shortly after the AAF folded. He had an excellent training camp and got a lot of work with Wentz and the first-team offense, which likely is one of the reasons he and Wentz have bonded so quickly.
“Greg’s personality lends to that as well,’’ Williams said. “When you talk to him, you can tell he cares. You can tell he knows what he’s doing, knows what he’s talking about.
“He cares about getting it right. When you’re dealing with a guy and he’s giving off that kind of aura and energy in the things he’s saying and doing, your trust in him grows. Because you know a guy like that is going to try his damnedest to get it right.''
Said Wentz: "I admire the heck out of him. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with him as a man and as a player since he got here. I’ve been impressed with who he is and his character and how hard he’s worked. Not just in season, but every offseason, and how badly he wants to be great and play.''
Wentz said that when Ward caught the game-winning touchdown pass Sunday against Washington, "I was so stinkin’ proud of the kid.''