Before and after the Eagles' organized team activities last spring, Nelson Agholor retreated to his hometown for a series of training sessions with an old friend and mentor that would anneal his mind as much as his body.
The hardest year of his football life — a sexual-assault allegation, a mistake-filled season, a mini-meltdown in Seattle, the weight of unfulfilled expectations for a first-round draft pick — had ended. He needed to wash it all away, feel clean again. He flew down to Tampa, Fla., to work again with former NFL wide receiver Yo Murphy, and the conditioning drills that Murphy put him through had a dual purpose. Yes, Agholor wanted to be faster and stronger, but the intangible benefits that those improvements brought meant as much to him, if not more. All those dropped passes last season were preying on his psyche, causing his mental errors to multiply and his confidence to plummet, and the solution was to make himself physically better, to trust that his eyes and hands and legs and feet were enough for him to thrive at football's highest level.
"I don't think you take a step back from your hard work," Murphy said in a phone interview Sunday, hours after Agholor caught four passes for 93 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown, in the Eagles' 34-7 rout of the Cardinals. "You take a step back about how you are wired for the moment. It's more about pushing your chips all in. 'I did the work. Now it's time to just play.'
"He's wound tight. He's a very analytical guy. He sometimes has to know that, even though he's a smart guy, his athletic ability needs to be his prime mover, not his brain."
It sounds counterintuitive, that a player whose greatest problem was that he was trying too hard would right himself by trying even harder. But for all the freedom and self-assurance that Agholor is displaying now — and that backward splashdown into the end zone on his touchdown Sunday was nothing if not the celebratory act of a self-assured man — he couldn't simply relax and know that everything would fall into place for him.
After averaging a meager 11 yards per reception and catching just 59 passes and three touchdowns through his first two NFL seasons, after the Eagles' decision to trade Jordan Matthews to the Bills inspired skepticism over whether he really could be a bona fide slot receiver, Agholor already has 16 receptions this season, and he leads the Eagles' wide receivers this season in yards per catch (16.6) and in touchdowns (three). Like the stunning touchdown he scored Sunday — when he sprinted past safety Budda Baker, fingertip-caught a long Carson Wentz pass, and muscled past Baker along the sideline — that kind of jump in production doesn't happen without a significant enhancement in a receiver's pure physical attributes.
Agholor got faster and stronger, so it's easier for him to make difficult plays. And because it's easier for him to make those plays, he makes more of those plays. And because he does, his confidence grows, until it's all a wondrous cycle perpetuating itself.
"Speed is something that puts people off balance, and when you match that with technique, you get yourself separation," he said. "When you're not on time, you end up catching the ball in awkward positions. When you get there on time, it's easier to get in front of the football and bring it in. At the end of the day, I'm not perfect yet, and I keep on working on these things."
He had no choice but to work on them, really. The offseason signings of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith naturally pushed Agholor down in the receivers' pecking order and, it was thought for a time, might threaten his place on the roster. As it turned out, their presences have been blessings for him, even in ways beyond often forcing an opponent to cover him with its third-best defensive back.
"Nelson's guidance has always come through guys who are in it and been there, who have been to where he's trying to get," Murphy said. Jeffery has been a godsend to him in that regard, a sounding board, an accomplished receiver who, Murphy said, "has had the experiences of having drops, not doing all the things right. That's the big thing. These things happen, and you still wake up in the morning."
Go back to that infamous November afternoon last year in Seattle, and you know how far Agholor has come. Go back to that day, when he committed an illegal-formation penalty that cost the Eagles a touchdown, when he ran a deep crossing route four plays later and let a perfect Wentz pass bounce off his elbow, when he went on a postgame rant that betrayed how lost he was inside his own head. Doug Pederson benched him the following week, a desperate attempt to help him, and the difference now is startling and heartening. How often do you see a 24-year-old athlete so close to having his career fall away bring himself back from the brink like this?
"I see this kid every single day, the way he walks into the building with confidence," Pederson said. "Nothing gets him down. He works extremely hard, and he's playing at a high level right now."
He caught that pass from Wentz in the third quarter Sunday, left Baker lying on the ground behind him, then stopped at the goal line. He turned his back to the end zone and threw his arms in the air in a V, the sound of 69,596 people rising around him. Later, someone asked him what he was thinking in that moment. "Nothing," he said. Finally, Nelson Agholor had learned to let go.
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