FOXBOROUGH — At the time, Brandon Lloyd had caught 57 NFL passes for 777 yards and eight touchdowns. He had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons at Illinois, where he was twice named All-Big Ten.
Yet there was Lloyd, in his third season with the San Francisco 49ers, walking pass routes in practice, methodically, step by painstaking step. Being told what his stance at the line of scrimmage should be, what foot to plant on, what angle to take when breaking back toward the quarterback, how to catch the ball. Things that he had done — quite successfully — for years.
The fundamental refresher class wasn’t Lloyd’s introduction to Wide Receiver 101. It was his introduction to Jerry Sullivan, his new receivers coach for the 49ers in the 2005 season.
Lloyd and Sullivan spent just 16 games together before the receiver was traded to the Redskins, but a special, lasting bond had been established. Through the years — and five more franchises Lloyd has played for, including the Patriots this season — Sullivan’s somewhat quirky coaching style is exactly what Lloyd admittedly needed. They’ll be reunited on Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla., when the Patriots face the Jaguars, where Sullivan is in his first year as receivers coach.
The bulk of Lloyd’s career numbers have come after he left Sullivan and the 49ers: 273 of his 378 receptions, 4,114 of his 5,624 yards, 22 of his 35 touchdowns. That production might not have been possible, Lloyd said, without the wisdom and guidance passed down from a 65-year-old coach who has been sought-after by some of football’s best receivers.
“Ninety percent, and the other 10 percent is just my experience,” Lloyd said earlier this week, when asked how much credit Sullivan deserves for the kind of receiver the 31-year-old has become. “The mental edge that I feel I have came from him. He’s got an edge to him, and when he’s coaching, he’s got a chip on his shoulder. He wants his group to be the best group on the team, he wants his group to be the best group in the NFL.
“He’s amazing. It’s giving me chills right now just talking about him.”
The feeling seems to be mutual.
“I’m thrilled to see that he’s kind of reinvented himself along the way. Brandon’s got a good head on his shoulders, has a good feel for the game,” Sullivan said. “Some guys have instincts, he has instincts. He’s worked to get better at it. He’s become a very accomplished receiver. If you look at him on tape, he’s very artistic about how he plays the game.”
This has been a challenging, up-and-down season for Lloyd, who signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent in March. There have been lows: two games with only one catch, including a 10-yarder at Miami Dec. 2, the only time he was targeted in the game. That prompted former Patriots receiver Troy Brown, now an analyst, to say, “You need to be picking up the pace right now. Your numbers should be going up. Your performance should be going up. All those things should be getting better, but I don’t think he’s been showing up for Tom Brady, and Tom Brady is not trusting this guy right now down the stretch.”
Things have changed in a hurry, because there have also been some highs this season for Lloyd, especially the last two weeks, when he’s shown flashes of the player the Patriots thought they were getting.
He caught seven passes for 89 yards and scored two touchdowns in a 42-14 win over Houston Dec. 10, then set a career high for receiving yardage last Sunday against the 49ers, the team that drafted him in 2003. Lloyd caught a season-high 10 passes — he was targeted 16 times — for 190 yards. No touchdowns, but it was easy to see that the on-field chemistry he’s been trying to create with Brady might finally be peaking.
“He’s had two great weeks in a row, and we’re going to need it down the stretch here,” Brady said. “He’s been running very good routes. I’ve just got to do a better job of finding him and giving him chances to catch the ball. That’s my responsibility.”
On Wednesday, Lloyd wasn’t in much of a reflective mood to talk about his season — the good or the bad.
“We’re moving on to Jacksonville,” he said.
Sullivan, though, was a topic Lloyd was quite willing to discuss. The season they spent together in San Francisco, Lloyd said, laid the foundation for the receiver he’s become. Despite his statistics in college and in his first two seasons with the 49ers, the young receiver, looking back, knew that something was missing. Sullivan provided it.
“I needed discipline,” Lloyd said. “At the receiver position, for it looking so off-the-cuff, it’s not. In order to be successful, you have to be very regimented and disciplined. Technique, catching, surface, weather conditions, everything factors in. You have to be very precise, and Jerry helped me to start thinking about that.
“All these things that you don’t even . . . as a young player, I never thought about. I thought I would just show up and my talent would carry me. It does sometimes, but when you add the extra discipline in the position, then that’s when you see guys really excelling.”
Lloyd liked Sullivan’s coaching style, despite it being slightly unconventional. In addition to the route walking, Sullivan frequently popped in old film of some former receivers he used to coach, drawing murmurs and eye rolls from his new receiving corps.
“At the beginning we’re like, ‘Why are we watching these guys? This film is from 10 years ago, I’m not watching this.’ But then you see how effective it was in the games,” Lloyd said.
Getting players to buy in hasn’t been a problem for Sullivan, who counts Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton, David Boston, Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Greg Jennings among receivers who either have played for him or, in the case of Fitzgerald and Jennings, asked him to work with them during last year’s lockout. Sullivan wasn’t coaching then, and thus wasn’t restricted from seeing and helping NFL players.
“I told Brandon years ago, when I had the opportunity to work with him, ‘You’ve just got to trust me, and I’ll help you get better.’ And he did, and he’s become a great technician,” said Sullivan, who has two young receivers now in Jacksonville (Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts) with plenty of ability. “I’ve always taught off of video, it’s a great tool to teach with.
“To the common man, being a good receiver is just running down the field. But when you play in the NFL and you have good corners, you have guys that get their hands on you, bumping you around, some of the holding that goes on that you have to fight through, there’s some real technical qualities in being a good receiver. It’s not just about how fast you are.”
After stints with the Chargers, Lions, Cardinals, Dolphins, and 49ers, Sullivan found himself home during the 2011 season. “I’m not a real good retiree: I don’t fish, I don’t hunt, I don’t play golf,” he said. So when given the opportunity to join Mike Mularkey’s staff in Jacksonville, he jumped.
They’ll be on opposing sidelines during Sunday’s game, but expect Lloyd and Sullivan to reconnect before and after. They’ll have catching up to do.
“I’ve always been very proud of how good he’s done,” Sullivan said. “We were only together for one year, then he went to Washington and kind of faded out of the picture. Now he’s scratched his way back.”
He’s been able to do that using the approach that Sullivan instilled in him, Lloyd said.
“He gets a lot of the credit, and every chance I get to tell people, I will,” he said. “I’ve had players ask me, where’d you get that move? I got it from Jerry Sullivan, and I’m still using it.”