The 2019 season was a far cry from what James Washington expected it to be.
He came back from his rookie year for OTAs focused and ready to go, having dropped 15 pounds in the offseason thanks to working on his family's farm in Texas and training in the heat in Miami, Florida.
He had spent time watching film, becoming what he referred to as a football junkie.
He had confidence, something he admits he struggled with as a rookie.
Everything seemed good.
Until one morning during training camp when he and his teammates woke up to the unthinkable, that receivers coach Darryl Drake had passed away totally unexpected. It was a shock. It was heartbreaking. It was something he never envisioned having to deal with.
"It was a rollercoaster for sure from the get-go," said Washington in a quiet, reflective voice. "Keeping Coach Drake in our minds helped us keep that faith and maintain a competitive attitude all year."
One thing that helped Washington move forward was the presence of Ray Sherman, who was with the team during the 2019 season on an interim basis. Sherman had been at training camp since it began last year, invited by Drake and other coaches to observe for the few weeks they were at Saint Vincent College. That all changed after Drake's passing when he came out of retirement and was named interim receiver's coach for the 2019 season. Sherman brought with him experience, having spent time on the staff of 10 different NFL teams. That experience and his nurturing guidance was what was needed.
"It helped us a lot," said Washington. "Him and Coach Drake were good buddies. It was almost like Coach Drake was here at times. No one will ever replace him. But Ray shed a lot of light on us from when he was coaching Jerry Rice and those guys, their work ethic and how they approached the game. As young guys we were absorbing all of that. We want to be great like them too. Anything he said to us, we were always listening."
The young group of receivers took every word said to them and held it close. They wanted nothing more than to go out and perform to honor Drake. And Washington held up his end. He finished the season with 44 receptions for 735 yards and three touchdowns, a big jump from his 16 receptions for 217 yards his rookie season.
"I saw strides for all of us as a young receiving corps," said Washington. "We had to make strides together and help each other along the way. We learned from each other along the way. I am impressed and happy with the strides I made. The hard work I put in really helped out."
The receivers bonded big time last season, working together as a unit and as Washington said, learning from each other, with everyone from JuJu Smith-Schuster to rookie Diontae Johnson bringing something to the table.
"Diontae is more of a quick guy, shake you, quick at the line with releases so he shares a little bit of how he does that," said Washington. "JuJu and I are kind of the same player, we are bigger, more physical receivers so we share that with some of the lighter receivers who are fast and quick. We share all of that as well as mental advice to keep you stable when you are upset or mad to keep making strides."
There were other challenges thrown their way, though. And that was injuries. And they came fast, and often, started with losing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"Injuries were crazy," said Washington. "It caused guys to have to step up immediately. No more waiting around for someone else to make the play."
Two players who stepped up were quarterbacks Mason Rudolph, who was Washington's college quarterback at Oklahoma State, and rookie Devlin Hodges, who came in without any fanfare but never backed down.
"It's hard, but their job is to give us a chance and our job is to catch those chances that they throw at us and help the offense move down the field and help the team win games," said Washington. "Having three different quarterbacks, they throw different. Their release is different. The way they get the ball out on breaking routes is different, some slower, some faster. It's definitely something you have to get used to. But with the talent we have in the receiving room we are able to withstand those."
With the up and down season behind him, Washington's focus is simple. Getting ready for the 2020 season.
"I am going to continue to do the things I have done to get to this point," said Washington. "I want to keep the weight where it is at. Maintain conditioning. Come back in the same shape I was in last year. I am ready to go."