Between 2010 and 2012, Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders learned the subtle art of playing wide receiver from professor Hines Ward. Catching 101 with the then-trio of Pittsburgh Steelers, known as the Young Money crew, began (and sometimes ended) with a daily session on the Jugs machine.
The three receivers have amassed a collective career total of 1,516 catches for 21,126 yards and 133 touchdowns through Week 15 of the 2016 season.
Practice must make perfect, right?
Sanders estimates he has caught "thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands" of balls from the machine. "It's definitely been pivotal for my success," he says.
The Jugs machine made its debut in the mid-1970s, filling an immediate niche: With less than a handful of quarterbacks on a typical football roster, there were never enough passes to go around for players who wanted to improve their catching skills via repetition. Forty years later, more than 25,000 machines have been shipped from the Jugs Sports factory in Tualatin, Oregon. Football at all levels has become more dominated by the passing game than ever before, and the Jugs machine, along with its various competitors, is a significant reason.
"You might go through a whole practice and get two to three passes," Wallace said. "And to me that's not enough to get better that day. But if you're catching 100 before practice and 100 after practice, you've caught 203 balls that day instead of catching three."
Wallace isn't alone. In the NFL today, and at the higher reaches of college competition, virtually every skill position player can catch the ball.
Throwing a football with the power and torque of a professional passer puts an enormous strain on a quarterback. It's why most teams keep a few extra arms around during training camp, when rosters are swollen. Logan Thomas, a quarterback out of Virginia Tech turned tight end for the Buffalo Bills, set the NFL combine record for throwing velocity in 2014 ... at 60 mph. That broke Colin Kaepernick's mark of 59 mph, set in 2011. But that flashy exercise was strictly for speed. In actual games, at their highest velocities (on short slants), John Elway and Brett Favre probably clocked in the mid- to high-50s -- comparable to the heaviest balls that now come from the hands of Kaepernick, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Jay Cutler. Most passes, however, are in the 35- to 45-mph range.
Jugs? The machine that can whip a football at you, at Sanders and at thousands of other pass-catchers at up to 70 miles per hour -- and it will never get a sore shoulder.
When Jugs Sports owner and president Butch Paulson watches Odell Beckham Jr. make one ridiculous catch after another, does he think: "You're welcome"?
"Those guys are gifted athletes; they work so hard to become the players they are," Paulson said. "But obviously the machine has given them a tool to develop their skills to where they are. Yeah, I guess we take a tiny bit of credit."
Beckham is sitting on the indoor field, splay-legged, at the New York Giants' Quest Diagnostics Training Center, calmly catching balls fired at him from a Jugs. For receivers, "down" time before, during and after practices can become Jugs time. NFL players, particularly wide receivers, are freakish athletes. But it would be naïve to think their athleticism is the sole reason for their success. There are plenty of videos online of Beckham, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and many other pass-catchers doing their diligence with the machine.
How many of Sanders' 400-plus catches does he attribute to the Jugs?
Every single one.
"It's like a quarterback, honestly," Wallace said. "It just gives you more confidence every time the ball comes your way. You're, 'All right, I've been here before.'"
And, unlike those high-priced passers, the 127-pound Jugs machine won't wreck your salary cap; it's about $2,600 (plus shipping), and can be adjusted to throw virtually any ball a human can.
Throwing them a curve
There are a number of football-throwing machines on the market now, but the original Jugs machine is the most universally known and has become the ubiquitous, generic name for throwing machines, like Jello-O or Q-Tips are in other realms. Even competitors' machines are often referred to by players simply as "The Jugs."
John Paulson played semi-pro baseball in the 1920s, and when his son Butch was coming up in Little League, he designed a machine in 1971 that would throw consistent pitches. The Jugs Curveball Pitching Machine was the company's first product, with the name derived from an old-time baseball expression about a "jug-handle curve," which the original machine could be adjusted to throw. In 1974, John started working on a football-throwing machine, eventually securing a patent. Soon after, he started showing it to NFL teams.
Raymond Berry was one of the first to grasp the potential impact. A Baltimore Colts wide receiver from 1955 to 1967, Berry was an assistant coach for the Cleveland Browns when he wrote Paulson a letter in 1976, three years after Berry was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I have been amazed at what this piece of equipment can do in the training of receivers," Berry wrote to Paulson. "It makes it possible to work a group of 10 receivers 15 minutes and have each player catch 20 or 25 balls. If I was still playing, I'd buy one myself and have my wife feed the balls to it. It's that simple to operate.
"It's the greatest thing I've seen in a long time."
According to Paulson, every NFL team has ordered Jugs machines over the years. The day before ESPN visited the company in late October, the New Orleans Saints called with an urgent order and popped for overnight shipping. There was a substantial trickle-down effect, from the NFL to major colleges. Now, college programs at all levels, and even many high schools, own a Jugs machine -- Jugs has even shipped more than 100 machines to Australia for Aussie Rules Football players.
The machine isn't terribly complicated. A pair of 16-inch rubber wheels, driven by a one-quarter horsepower motor, are angled in such a way that a ball fed between the wheels creates a perfect spiral as it's launched. Paulson even has a patent for the light-blue paint that covers the machine. You can change the direction and trajectory with a simple one-handed tweak, and it can also simulate booming punts and end-over-end kicks.
Players use the Jugs machine differently, some with emphasis in the offseason and training camp, others as a daily pre- or post-practice ritual.
Pittsburgh's Brown works it early and often during camp. (He has been known to post his best over-the-shoulder and one-handed catches on Snapchat.) Titans rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe catches 50 on each side of his body daily, and starts the count over if he drops one.
Sanders bought one to use at his Houston home -- catching 500 to 600 passes in a single day is not uncommon for the Broncos receiver, but he's not willing to risk a broken finger by setting the speed at 60 mph.
"For me, it's about muscle memory and training my eyes at the speed I'm going to be playing at," Sanders said. "So that's why I leave it at 30 to 40."
In October, when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was questionable with a shoulder injury, Wallace turned the heat up on the Jugs machine, from 40 to 50 mph.
"We had to speed it up because [backup Ryan] Mallett throws the ball harder than Joe does, like a baseball player," Wallace said. "You got to be prepared, so you just try to simulate your quarterback.
"Mallett will get on there every now and then, because he thinks he has the best hands on the team."
Because Wallace's right hand is dominant, he tries to catch twice as many balls on his left side to compensate for his "blind" spot. Sanders, meanwhile, spends a fair amount of time fielding "bad" balls -- low, high, left and right -- because "every pass isn't going to be perfect."
The other side of the ball
The Jugs machine isn't just for players who make catches for a living. Giants safety Landon Collins, perhaps the defensive revelation of 2016, has reinvented himself as a good-hands guy. Although he started all 16 games as a rookie last year, he managed only one interception. This season, he had five in a spectacular span of four games.
"The Jugs machine has helped me a lot," Collins said. "We have ball drills after practice. Catching deep balls, balls that are right in your face. Different areas. Because we don't get the opportunity to have balls coming to us every day."
Super Bowl 50 featured three prominent defenders who are mad about Jugs: Former Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who continues his devotion to the machine in Washington, and Broncos linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who regularly engage in pass-catching contests.
A'Shawn Robinson, a 320-pound defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, used the Jugs machine in spring workouts and training camp because he wanted to work on his hand speed, hand control and hand-eye coordination. Darius Slay and other Lions defensive backs were obsessive about using the machine as part of their "Hand School."
The Green Bay Packers have a drill with the Jugs called "Man Hands," in which they stick their hands directly in front of the machine. Former Green Bay punter Tim Masthay bought one so he could practice holding for a left-footed kicker the team brought into training camp.
Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley and Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson are both big Jugs proponents. Johnson's relentless work with the machine outside of practice at Northern Iowa helped him get selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft. He has already compiled more than 100 catches for more than 1,000 yards in less than two NFL seasons. The first time Johnson used the machine was as a freshman in college.
"I was actually going there to play receiver," Johnson said. "Being able to be a dual threat, playing running back and receiver [is key]. Especially since most running backs aren't used to catching the ball.
"It just takes you and a partner to sit there and work on your hands. The biggest thing is being able to catch the ball at different velocities. Once it comes to the game and the quarterback has to change the way he throws it, I'm able to be able to catch the ball in different ways."
Crunching the numbers
In 1975, NFL teams ran the ball 55 percent of the time. In 2015, the percentage was 41 percent. There are a number of factors for the proliferation of passing, beginning with a gradual shift in offensive philosophy. The physics are undeniable: it's far easier to move the ball more quickly and gain bigger chunks of yardage through the air. Teams have also learned that passing excites the fan base. In 1975, only three teams -- the Houston Oilers, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints -- played in climate-controlled stadiums under a roof. Now eight teams do. The increasing popularity of gloves also has improved receiving efficiency.
Look at the total for NFL receptions by decade:
When the numbers are in for 2010-19, it will be well into six figures. And the Jugs machine has to take some credit for that. "It is probably not a coincidence," Butch Paulson said.
Learning the craft
Now with his fourth team in eight NFL seasons, the 30-year-old Wallace finds himself the professor. Just as he did at previous stops in Minnesota and Miami, he's returning the favor of Ward by mentoring young Ravnes receivers Breshad Perriman, Chris Moore and Keenan Reynolds. Office hours usually include a session (or two) with the Jugs machine.
Back in the day, Wallace would do 200 balls after practice, but young players today don't seem to have that kind of attention span, so Wallace "toned it down" with 50 balls apiece on each side. To keep them engaged, Wednesday's bonus session features one-handed catches, followed by a freestyle competition.
"You have to kind of do something crazy," Wallace said. "We call that one the 'Make it nasty.'"
Wallace tells the young receivers, "If you want to get as much money as you can, you have to catch passes. And this helps. If you have access to something that is going to make you better or help you at your craft, help your family live better, then why not do it?
"If you do it in high school, you'll be better by college. Then you'll be amazing by the time you get to the NFL."