Throughout the painful practice weeks and the difficult conversations last season, wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr. couldn't help but think of his former Seattle teammates.
As a member of the Seahawks, Richardson remembered how Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin practiced every day despite their nagging injuries. They stayed late after practice, they didn't complain, they remained ready for Sundays.
"That's one of the biggest things I respected out of Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman," Richardson said by his locker following an offseason workout this week at Redskins Park. "Doug was banged up, he was always hurt, he always played, he always practiced. Why couldn't I do that? Why not?"
Richardson's internal interrogation surfaced because of requests by his coaching staff to take regular season practices easy. He had been dealing with sharp pain in his collar bone, which began near the beginning of training camp and festered as the weeks progressed. Richardson said one day he caught three consecutive passes in Richmond that forced him to land on the same shoulder. From that point on, he never felt the same.
"I was like, man something's not right," he said. "I got all this adrenaline after practice and it was just sore. I was in rehab every day, it was just sore. There was no sense of urgency or need to investigate further because I said I was fine. I was being more competitive than smart."
Once the regular season began and Richardson took more hits, the pain compounded. The speedy wide receiver had just signed a lucrative multi-year contract in March, brought in to be the team's deep threat and to clear out opposing defenses, and the last thing he wanted to do was waste a year of Washington's investment. The training staff, he said, did everything to make him feel comfortable – adjusting his pads, getting him ready with treatment before games – but Richardson refused most of it, relying on his adrenaline to carry him through Sundays.
"I'm wearing all this stuff that's supposed to protect me and it's stopping me from being me," he said. "I'd rather be hurt and be able to put on a show than to be limited and almost get there or almost do it and know it's because all of the stuff they have me doing."
Practice weeks became negotiations, fueled by an inherent sense of justice. Often, Richardson was listed on the injury report but would still take the practice field with the other wide receivers, helmet on, catching passes, despite him describing the excruciating pain of rotating his right arm back.
"Ike and Jay, it was a lot of conversations. It was hard," Richardson said. "I was practicing, and they were like 'Take his helmet,' and I was like 'No I'm practicing.' I wouldn't have my pads on, and I'd go and get into drills and they'd hate it because they wanted me for Sunday, and I get it. But no, I can't do that. I can't watch my backup put more work in than me and he has to watch me on Sunday -- that's not fair. It's not fair."
"I felt like I wasn't down and out so I wanted to help as long as I could," he added. "I was fighting to play as long as I could, to help as long as I could, because even if I wasn't getting the ball I was making a difference."
Richarson played seven games, catching 20 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns, impacted more through each contest by his shoulder.
But the adrenaline couldn't keep the pain away. On Nov. 5, head coach Jay Gruden announced the team had placed Richardson on Injured Reserve, cutting his season short before the final stretch. Richardson said his clavicle had broken in a couple places, and he had a plate inserted during surgery.
"The end of the bone was stabbing through my skin every day," Richardson admitted. "I was having trouble with day-to-day stuff, and it was bigger than me being an athlete. I have a family, I have to be able to do regular stuff around the house every day. If I can't do that, I'm definitely no use on the field."
The first couple of months of recovery were challenging. At times he felt depressed, as though deciding to get surgery was an insult to the organization. But the longer he kept playing in pain, he figured, the harder it would be to return to the team at full strength by the start of the 2019 season. "It was time, it was smart," he admits.
"It's like I feel like I'm letting a lot of people down," Richardson said. "I feel like I'm not giving this organization their money's worth, and that was my biggest thing. I had no reason not to give everything I could for as long as I could. I can't dictate when the ball comes, but I know I'm gonna make a play on the ball if it's a hint in my direction…That's what I wanted, to leave on that note."
Take a look at photos from the third day of Phase 1 of offseason workouts for the 2019 Washington Redskins.
People thought Richardson was joking when he left the hospital and said he never felt like he'd gone under the knife. He had complete range of motion with zero pain, and for the past few months he has been slowly strengthening his arm and shoulder muscles with his training team in Los Angeles. He met with his track coach, too, who helped with his posture to relieve stress on his upper body and build up his endurance.
"My routine consisted of stretching, massage therapy, my therapy warmed me up to start doing weights," said Richardson, who began lifting two weeks ahead of schedule. "Just because you can pick up 225 pounds [and] lift it one time, you can't pick up 185 and bench it 10 times, you're not really maximizing your body. So that's kind of what we're getting back to before I get back here for this optional time."
Over the winter, Richardson would return to Redskins Park to check in with team trainers so they could monitor his progress. "The agreement was if I ever came back and I was behind, I would stay until I caught up. And I never had to stay," he said. "Every time I came, I was in town for a day or two and then back home to LA. So that speaks to how much they were trusting me with the protocol they sent for me to follow. … These guys have been on point. I've been working with Larry [Hess], Elliot [Jermyn], and Mark [McCracken] and these guys have been amazing."
Richardson isn't sure about how much he'll participate during OTAs. "I know that it's not smart for me to get hit," he says. "The plan right now is to work towards being ready for OTAs and minicamp and being as close to 100 percent as possible. And they know I'm close. They've seen me perform. It's only been a couple days, but I'm normal. I just think that as we get closer, they're going to become more open with what it is."
Still, Richardson knows he has to be smart. He must balance his desire to play and practice every day to prioritize long-term health. Last season is a helpful reminder.
"What I want to bring to this offense is just explosion," Richardson said, finally looking ahead. "I'm running past guys, 'Throw it.' That's all I've ever said. I've never said a spiral, I've never said a touch pass, I've never said a little bit to the left, I've never said on a specific play. Just give us opportunities on the outside. [Josh Doctson] is a walking highlight film. Josh Doctson, are you serious? We've got so many playmakers, just give us the opportunity, that's all I want. I just want to bring to this offense, as a receiver room, not just me, we're open. If we're not open, we'll make a play on the ball. And that's all I want to bring to this offense, an opportunity."
Richardson continued, as if September were a week away.
"If I can say anything to anybody, whoever the QB is, whoever the coach is, just throw it," he said one more time. "And I'm open with [Kevin O'Connell] too. I'm happy with his [offensive coordinator] promotion, and it's gonna be special. He wants to get our room going, and he wants to let it fly. When you've got guys back there toting the rock, it's going to be easy."
Then he added the most important qualifier.
"We've just got to stay healthy."