In May, Kelley Washington was an unemployed wide receiver, tripped up by his own medical charts. The job market was tight, and the former Tennessee star was reduced to accepting tryouts, the NFL equivalent of bargain-basement shopping.
Six months later, he is the missing piece in the Ravens' offensive puzzle, the slot receiver who keeps drives going with clutch third-down catches over the middle.
All Washington had to do was wipe out a six-year history of chronic injury and unfulfilled potential. Sunday, when he goes back to Cincinnati - where his pro career began - he will go back a new man and a better player.
"I think I'm a more mature player, more professional," he said. "When I was in Cincinnati, I was young, trying to figure out what it took to be a professional athlete, to be an NFL player."
Washington turned 30 in August. He was a 24-year-old rookie when the Bengals drafted him in the third round in 2003, having spent four years in baseball's low minor leagues and two more in Knoxville, Tenn., turning himself into a big-time college receiver.
A neck injury - and subsequent surgery to fuse vertebrae - caused Washington to fall to the third round in 2003. The Bengals envisioned a speed receiver in the slot making plays downfield. Washington flashed early signs of promise, then faded.
He missed 20 of his last 32 games there, lost his job to Chris Henry and finally left in free agency after the 2006 season. There was a two-year stint in New England as special teams ace with the Patriots, where he had one catch for 3 yards in two years. Then there was nothing but tryouts with the Washington Redskins and Ravens last May, after a career spent on the injury list.
When he arrived in Baltimore, he was met by receivers coach Jim Hostler and this warning: "If you can't stay healthy, you'll be out of here. You won't even have to turn your car off in the parking lot."
Like a foreboding shadow, Washington's past had followed him here. Then a curious thing happened. Washington finally figured out how to take care of his body to avoid those nagging injuries. His first and biggest step was adopting a dietary regimen that fueled his long, lean muscles, giving him endurance and staying power.
The program included drinking 2 gallons of water every day, drinking two Gatorades during practice, drinking a protein shake afterward - along with hot and cold baths, sauna treatments and $200 massages. He also gave up drinking alcohol, which he says dehydrated him.
"It made a major difference," Washington said. "I haven't missed a practice since training camp. I've had no little minor setbacks like I used to have."
Hostler said it saved Washington's career.
"When he first got here, he'd run out of steam really fast," Hostler said. "You could tell he was tight [in his muscles]. The longer he went, the tighter he got, the more prone he was to injury. So over time, as he implements this program, he has really become much faster and can sustain it a much longer period of time. Which is part of the problem that brought him here in the first place. He wasn't able to practice and get better."
Washington got the idea from watching receivers Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Cincinnati, and Randy Moss in New England. He picked up traits and applied them to his game. Until Baltimore, none of it clicked.
Now, he's finally living up to his draft potential. By playing in the slot, Washington has allowed the Ravens to move Derrick Mason outside. Both benefit. Twenty of Washington's 24 catches have produced first downs. Twelve have come on third down. Mason has 11 third-down conversions among his 23 first downs. And the Ravens have scored 30 points or more in five of seven games.
"Everybody has their own little routine," Mason said, "but I think what Kelley does works for him. Obviously, he's dealt with some injury issues and he understands what his body needs. I always see him stretching, I see him with the foam ball he uses to help massage his muscles. He's drinking a lot of water, and he's always in the hot tub or cold tub to make sure when he comes back the next day, a lot of that lactic acid hasn't set in."
Hostler credits offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with the wisdom to move Washington into the slot and Mason outside. At 6 feet 3 and 212 pounds, Washington is one of the bigger slot receivers in the league. It creates favorable matchups inside and outside.
Washington had four catches for a team-high 58 yards in a 30-7 romp over the Denver Broncos on Sunday. Three were third-down conversions, and all four catches led to scores.
"Teams that convert on third down have more time of possession, and that was big for us in that game," Cameron said. "The real players in this league play on third down and deliver on third down. We have a whole separate grading system for our guys on third down. ... Guys that can play at a high level on first and second down are really somewhat common; guys that can excel on third down are the guys that are special."
Washington is grateful for the opportunity the Ravens supplied him.
"I waited seven years for this opportunity I have in front of me," he said. "The only person that's going to take that away from me would be me. So I do everything I possibly can, make sure I'm constantly doing something to stay healthy and keep my mind and body focused on football."
Going back to Cincinnati will evoke lots of memories, many of them painful, some of them bad.
"I just want to show them what they didn't use, or what they don't have," Washington said. "I don't have to catch 10 balls or anything; I can just be out there on the field, helping our team succeed. But I'd definitely like to show them what they could've had."
1 p.m. Sunday
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3