There is an urgency and an anxiousness around Jordan Reed, because he knows what he can be if only his body — quite literally from his (currently concussed) head to his (formerly broken) toe — would cooperate. When Reed began offseason workouts in south Florida in June — fully healthy, feeling great — he would call his trainer frantically in the hours after a session.
“Every single day,” said that trainer, Pete Bommarito, who works with several NFL players. “He’d call that night and just say, ‘How do I look? Am I back? Am I back?’”
It is the question Reed’s team, the Washington Redskins, spent much of this preseason asking, again: When will Jordan Reed be back?
The most optimistic take on the Washington season that begins Sunday in Philadelphia has to have Reed starting at tight end for — pick a number — 12, 14 or (just imagine) 16 games. But the week leading up to that opener brought with it what have become eternal and inevitable questions about his availability. After the healthiest offseason he can remember, he was drilled in the head during Washington’s third preseason game and hasn’t played since. In an offense whose most promising playmakers are either unproven (Derrius Guice), aging (Adrian Peterson) or limited physically (everyone else?), Reed’s ability to simply pull on pads and be some version of himself is essential.
“He’s an elite player,” coach Jay Gruden said.
“He changes our offense big-time,” running back Chris Thompson said.
Anything written about Reed is in danger of plagiarizing everything else written about Reed: He is an unusual, dynamic talent who just needs his health to prove his worth. That could have been written when he was a rookie in 2013 (nine games), when he caught 87 balls and 11 touchdowns in 2015 (career-high 14 games), when he made the Pro Bowl in 2016 (12 games), or when he missed more than half the season in 2017 (six games).
But it is written here, in 2019, because he is in the NFL’s concussion protocol, and though he went through some of the team’s workouts Wednesday and Thursday, he has not yet been cleared to play. That’s distressing, because Washington’s offense is in a spot in which it may have to rely on Reed more than ever.
Stop someone on the street, and ask what the local football team’s best threat at wideout would be. Cue the blank stares. Maybe — maaaaaaybe — you’d get someone to say “Paul Richardson” because the veteran has speed, or “Terry McLaurin” because they remember him from Ohio State. But the elite downfield threat of DeSean Jackson is long gone. The first-round talent of Josh Doctson was cut at the end of the preseason. The slot excellence of Jamison Crowder walked away in the offseason. As far as the league is concerned, the leftover guys require not only name tags, but also reams of biographical information.
So Reed is needed because of what this team lacks around him. More than that, though. Reed is needed because of who he is. He needs his head clear, and not just of the concussion. He needs his head clear of everything that has limited him in the past.
“I’ve seen frustration, big-time,” Thompson said. “He’s had a hard time dealing with it. But as I’ve seen him the last few days or so when he’s come back in the building now, he doesn’t look as down as he did in the past. What I’ve seen in previous years when he had injuries, it was like he knew he was nowhere close to getting back. And if he did go out, he wasn’t feeling like himself. Now, I think because his lower body’s good and healthy, I think he’s in a much better place.”
What Reed is dealing with is, in some ways, no different than for anyone who decides to make his living by violently slamming into other men.
“Think about it,” said new Washington linebacker Jon Bostic, who played three years with Reed at Florida. “You put your body in how many car accidents a year, and then you have to be able to go back and play on Sunday. Sometimes, your body just goes through it.”
In college, Bostic saw how Reed dealt with issues that began with being switched from quarterback (imagine that) to tight end. In the offseasons, Bostic made it a practice to spend Saturdays at the Gators’ facility, watching film.
“I’d look out, and J. Reed would be running the same route over and over and over,” Bostic said. “The coaches had to tell him, ‘Go home. You’re going to wear yourself down.’ That’s J. Reed.”
Before the concussion — suffered on an ugly helmet-to-helmet hit from Atlanta safety Keanu Neal, a hit for which Neal was fined more than $28,000 — there were plenty of reasons to believe that Reed had built himself back up rather than worn himself down. Bommarito first worked with Reed to get him prepared for the 2013 NFL draft, in which Washington selected him in the third round. But over the past few offseasons, the pair hadn’t been able to work together because Reed’s body wasn’t ready. That lack of offseason training has an impact, Bommarito said, on in-season preparedness.
“In order to be that elite, you’ve got to be able to train your body in the offseason,” Bommarito said. “Just because you have the genetic potential doesn’t mean you’re able to maintain it all year round. The season itself takes a toll on your body. That’s for everybody. But with him, when he was rehabilitating an injury, he couldn’t do that. The overall frustration is he just knows what his body is able to do.”
This offseason, finally healthy and coming off a year in which he played 13 games and caught 54 balls for a Washington offense that churned through quarterbacks, he pushed his body to do what he knows it can. But in the process, he needed constant reassurance that he was performing to his standard.
“He would literally break everything out,” Bommarito said. “He would hit every cut at every angle at every speed. Inside edge. Outside edge. Everything.”
The overarching question, though, remains: Is he back? This is a league in which early retirements are becoming more common. Jordan Reed isn’t at that point yet. The point he’s at: You’d love for him to catch a break. You’d love for him to play 16 games. You’d love for him not just to go into next season healthy, but you’d love for him to be healthy, period. Not just for football. But for life.