We're coming up on a year since the Paul Turner Experience began, and the shame of it is, the poor guy never got to enjoy becoming a folk hero while he was becoming a folk hero.
Remember training camp 2016 and the crazy buzz about how Turner - this too-small, too-slow, undrafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech - might have been the Eagles' best wide receiver? Remember the preseason, when he made a one-handed, back-shoulder, circus catch against the Steelers and returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown against the Jets? Remember that Dec. 4 game in Cincinnati, when the best thing about the Eagles in their 32-14 loss to the Bengals was Turner, his six catches and his 80 receiving yards? Remember how he wasn't Nelson Agholor or Dorial Green-Beckham or Josh Huff, how he wasn't a first-round pick or a second-round pick or a third-round pick, how he didn't carry the same expectations that they did or squander an opportunity through sheer foolishness, how he was the ultimate underdog in a city that is always looking to fall in love with the latest ultimate underdog?
Turner remembers most of it, too. What he doesn't remember is the buzz - the beat writers and bloggers who wondered why he didn't make the roster out of camp and, later, didn't get a shot to play earlier in the season; the post on a website called Cover32.com that suggested he could be a "savior" for the Eagles' receiving corps; the sentiment and hope on social media and talk radio that he stirred up every time he caught a pass. During training camp, he had gone dark, staying off social media, reading no articles or posts, watching no coverage, getting no sense of what he had come to represent.
"I started getting text messages from family," he said Monday, after the Eagles had practiced. "I told everybody, 'Don't hit me up during preseason.' I wanted to focus in on what was going on. It was kind of surreal, after the preseason was over, to see how everything had transpired."
He used the past tense, and he was right to, because none of that pie-in-the-sky excitement around him then has carried over to these organized team activities or will to this year's training camp. The Eagles have taken significant measures this offseason to improve at wide receiver. They signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. They drafted Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson. They still have Jordan Matthews, who has been productive throughout his three seasons with the team. Nobody's all that interested in Turner's Cinderella story now. People wanted Carson Wentz to have better weapons in his second season, so they wanted better wide receivers for him. Those people included the Eagles' decision-makers.
But these changes, Turner said, changed nothing for him. He has spent most of the offseason in Louisiana, working with his skills coach, Kurt Hester, and former NFL quarterback Tim Rattay, who was Turner's wide receivers coach at Louisiana Tech, to hone the oft-unseen aspects of playing the position, the small things that can allow a 5-foot-10, 193-pound receiver without world-class speed to succeed. Here at OTAs, he has kept a close eye on Jeffery and Smith, taking note of how Jeffery "attacks the ball," using his outfielder's-mitt-size hands to catch each pass, and how Smith generates separation from cornerbacks on his breaks.
"I feel like I've improved just being in the system," Turner said. "Having a year under my belt has just given me an opportunity to come in here less focused on trying to know the plays and more on understanding coverages and playing at a faster pace. As far as the roster, I just feel like it's about the same as last year. It's just about going out there and proving what you can do, just taking every rep like it's your last."
On Tuesday, Turner made a tough, contested catch along the right sideline, cutting off his route and coming back to Nick Foles as Foles rolled to the right. It was the sort of play that allows an observer to see what he or she wants to see in Turner, to ask the kinds of questions and dream the kinds of dreams that even Turner's modest rise inspires in those who follow sports closely. What if Turner got a bona fide shot with the Eagles? What if the quarterback throwing to him wasn't a rookie still growing, still developing, but was Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers? Could Turner be another Danny Amendola, a Julian Edelman, an Antonio Brown? What if he were with another team at another time?
It's funny, how we reach for that star on behalf of a guy like Turner. It's funny, how Turner didn't.
"God has a plan for everybody," he said. "You can't focus on the timing. All you can do is control what you can control. It's not about, 'Oh, if I was here at this time, I would have had this many catches.' All you can do is focus on what's in your hands, and that's not."
The buzz, or lack thereof, isn't, either. It never was. Which is why Paul Turner wasn't aware of it, won't miss it, and, no matter what happens this year, will probably get along fine without it. Most folk heroes understand they have expiration dates.