NAPA, Calif. -- It was early February, the weekend of Super Bowl XLIV. Darrius Heyward-Bey had nothing special going on in his life, especially given that he and his teammates had cleaned out their lockers for the offseason a month earlier.
The Raiders wide receiver was bored, so he came up with an idea: Why not get a full month's head start on preparing for the 2010 season?
Actually, the process was more along the lines of taking the first steps toward making amends for a disappointing 2009 campaign. By most accounts, Heyward-Bey's performance in Oakland's training camp this year strongly indicates he is well on his way to doing exactly that.
"The jump he's made is tremendous," safety Tyvon Branch said Wednesday morning. "We were just talking about that (Tuesday) on the sideline. His route-running, his hands, everything is getting so much better as days go on. You can tell he put a lot of work into this offseason, and it's showing right now."
Added tight end Zach Miller: "His improvement is huge. He looks like a totally different player from last year. I'm very impressed with him."
Not many people were saying that a year ago.
The Raiders made a controversial decision when they selected Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick of the '09 draft, three picks before the 49ers grabbed Michael Crabtree, whom many viewed as the cream of the wide receiver crop. Heyward-Bey, the former Maryland standout, had tremendous speed, but most analysts believed he would have been available at the bottom of the first round.
After a rookie season in which he caught only nine passes for 124 yards and a touchdown before suffering a badly sprained left foot, the critics were quick to say, "We told you so."
Safety Michael Huff could relate well to what Heyward-Bey experienced. The Raiders also were criticized for reaching when they made him the seventh overall pick in 2006. Huff certainly didn't help matters by having a poor rookie season.
The problem, according to Huff, is that he assumed success would come easily. He saw Heyward-Bey fall into the same trap.
"You come in, high draft pick, I expected to get 10 interceptions, (rookie) defensive (player of the year honors), and all that," Huff recalled. "I told him to just relax and let everything happen, just let it come naturally, and he'll be fine."
Coach Tom Cable said some "perspective" is needed in evaluating Heyward-Bey's rookie season. All of the talk that the Raiders shouldn't have drafted him so high with better receivers available became a distraction.
"I think, for a young guy, having all that put on you, really affected him," Cable said. "And I think what we've seen is a guy who has come through that, looks at it, and has been very real, (saying), 'You know what? I didn't play very good,' and went to work. The player that we've seen all spring and in camp thus far is 180 degrees different, and I think people will see that right away."
Soon after reporting back to the Raiders' headquarters in Alameda, Calif., in February, Heyward-Bey began working with receivers coach Sanjay Lal and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. The daily routine included catching countless passes from the Jugs machine while getting acquainted with Jackson and the plans the coach had for Heyward-Bey in the offense.
Jackson told Heyward-Bey he had a chance to become special.
"I've always known that," Heyward-Bey said. "But hearing that from Hue and talking to some of his former players, like T. J. (Houshmandzadeh, whom Jackson coached in Cincinnati), I realized I have a chance to be good and I don't want to lose the opportunity. Working hard's always been a big thing for me; I think I've always worked hard. But it's OK to crank it up a notch, and that's what I'm trying to do here."
"Some guys you just look at and you respect them because of the way they work," Campbell said of Heyward-Bey.
The quarterback was instantly impressed with Heyward-Bey's rare combination of size and speed. He has watched him beat enough defenders deep during offseason workouts and training camp to become very excited at the wideout's explosiveness.
The two talked about Heyward-Bey's struggles last season. Campbell told him, "Last season's gone. It's behind you. You learn from it, you improve from it, but this is a whole new year. I need you each and every Sunday."
Each day in camp, the receiver has demonstrated to Campbell that he intends to hold up his end of the bargain. He does so by running all of his practice routes full speed. When Campbell asks Heyward-Bey to stay on the field after practice to catch extra passes, he always complies, along with fellow wide receiver Louis Murphy. During those sessions, Heyward-Bey usually faces one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, Nnamdi Asomugha.
He even added about 10 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame, going from 205 to 215, with the idea of bringing a new dimension to his game. Heyward-Bey plans to use more than blazing speed to be productive.
"I want to be aggressive, I want to be physical," said Heyward-Bey, who will get a chance to show off his new, bigger body when the Raiders travel to Dallas on Thursday for their preseason opener.
"Everybody expects me to run away from guys, but I'm 215 right now. If I can run through you, I'm going to try to. I'm going to try to do everything I can to get into the end zone."
Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, was the one who drafted Heyward-Bey. That means he had the greatest reason to be disappointed with what he saw from him in 2009.
Yet, Heyward-Bey recalls Davis' parting words before the start of the offseason as simply being, "Get healthy." The receiver did, and has no lingering issues from his foot injury.
He also has no doubt he can fulfill Davis' lofty expectations.
"He believes in me," Heyward-Bay said. "That's what you want to hear from your owner, that he believes in you. He drafted me for a reason and for him to be behind me all the way, that's all the confidence I needed."