We all remember the fact that James Washington had a disappointing rookie season, during which the second-round draft pick struggled in many different ways to perform the basic tasks of his position throughout much of the year. What some might not remember is that he actually was benched multiple times during the year. For him, the second benching was worse.
“It stunk”, he told the team’s website. “But you learn a lot that week because you’re sitting there watching the game, watching the guys who are playing. You see how those guys are executing in situations that you had and maybe you can take something from. That really got me. It gave me time to think about it and how I could do this better”.
That second benching came following the Denver Broncos game, during which he dropped a deep pass that may well have gone for a touchdown. That was one of three targets that he received in the game, and he failed to come up with a catch on any of them.
He was inactive the following week for the game against the Los Angeles Chargers. And who knows how much longer he might have spent on the bench, because that was the game that his replacement on the active list, veteran Justin Hunter, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury trying to haul in an overthrown Ben Roethlisberger pass.
With the injury, Hunter had to dress again, and he took baby steps back to relevance. He caught two passes the following week, though for just 11 yards. But he caught three passes for a season-high 65 yards against the New England Patriots, including a 32-yard reception.
While he was shut out against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16, he would finish the regular season in the finale against the Cincinnati Bengals finally making good on that deep dropped pass. The Steelers ran the same play and this time he hauled it in for a 47-yard reception. That was one of three receptions on the day for 64 total yards.
“It lit a fire under me”, he said of the benching. “It makes you mad, but you are mad at yourself because it’s about what you do”. Roethlisberger also had an extended private conversation with him following the Broncos game, which he said helped him throughout the rest of the year.
He was previously benched earlier in the season coming out of the bye week in the team’s second game against the Cleveland Browns. His playing time had already been curtailed in the game leading into the bye week, with Hunter seeing more playing time, and the coaching staff just wanted to scale things back for the rookie, who was being overwhelmed.
Not everybody is going to mature at the rate of a player like JuJu Smith-Schuster, and that’s okay. Washington experienced a lot during his rookie season that will help him realize his full potential starting in 2019.