Lloyd making leap to become showman receiver

Brandon Lloyd is a highlight film waiting to happen. As such, he always strives to be well prepared for those spontaneous moments in a game when his extraordinary physical gifts and football instincts are allowed an opportunity to take over. So he practices. In his mind.

"I visualize a lot of that stuff happening," the 49ers' acrobatic third-year receiver said. "So when it happens in a game, it's like second nature. I see myself catching the ball behind my back, between my legs, with one hand. I do that before I play the game, so if it happens, I've already done it."

It's been happening.

Lloyd already has made a couple of incredible one-handed catches so far during 2005, the kind that deserve a prominent place in the personal showcase of spectacular grabs he has made since arriving in the NFL as San Francisco's fourth-round draft choice in 2003.

Those have started to come on a more frequent basis now that Lloyd is the top target in a still-developing San Francisco passing game and one of the few legitimate weapons the 49ers have on their embryonic offense.

He makes plays with style and flair. And some of his catches truly are unique onto him and only him.

There was the one that had everybody buzzing this summer when he leaped in the air and stretched a hand high in the sky to snare a hitch pass that appeared well overthrown during an exhibition game against the Denver Broncos.

And then there was the one in Week 2 at Philadelphia that made the rounds on all the highlight shows, when Lloyd – running a crossing pattern across the field – reached back for a pass thrown high and behind him. With his head already turned up field, Lloyd snatched the ball with the five fingers on his right hand without even breaking stride.

Lloyd has a typical reaction to the amazement those catches produce in others: Ho-hum.

"It's not something that just happens on Sunday," he said. "I do it at practice all the time. To do things like that, a guy has to be bold enough to try things like that. I mean, I probably drop four or five of them in practice doing the same thing. It takes practice and work. It's not something I'm a master at by any means."

It only seems that way. Along with his sensational catches, Lloyd also is making plenty of others this year that in comparison might seem routine. He finished the first quarter of San Francisco's season with 17 receptions for 326 yards, a 19.2 average per catch that ranked fourth among all NFL receivers with that many catches.

Lloyd emerges from San Francisco's bye week with those same numbers after being held without a reception in last week's loss to Indianapolis, when rookie Alex Smith threw only three passes Lloyd's way in his Smith's starting debut. Two of them were intercepted.

But before being shut out by the Colts, Lloyd produced back-to-back two of the best games of his career.

Featured during that stretch was Lloyd's stunning 89-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Dallas, the longest play from scrimmage in the NFL so far this season.

"That's the old-fashioned bombs away," said Arizona coach Dennis Green. "Brandon is emerging very quickly. He has exceptional speed, and he's got a lot of pictures up in that building that he can try to emulate. The 49ers have had some great receivers and I think that Brandon wants to be one."

After catching four passes for a career-high 142 yards and two touchdowns against the Cowboys during the final weekend of September, Lloyd went out the next week and reeled in seven receptions for 102 yards against Green's Cardinals. Those were the first 100-yard games of his career.

Those fine numbers seem like something of an aberration in a San Francisco passing game that ranks near the bottom of the NFL in production.

"You can't magic-wand anybody," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We'd love for them all (players in the 49ers' passing attack) to step up. As we all know, Brandon certainly has stepped up."

Stepping up – and we're talking high up – is something Lloyd might do as well or better than anybody else in the NFL.

And, while he certainly gives deference to the quality receivers that have come before him with the 49ers, Lloyd isn't exactly trying to emulate any of them, as Green suggests. He's his own man with his own receiving elegance.

And the grace that distinguishes Lloyd from others is the way he can lift his body into the air and contort it while a football is in flight.

"That's his deal," said Tim Rattay, who connected with Lloyd on three touchdown passes in San Francisco's first four games before Smith took over at quarterback in Week 5. "He can torque his body in a lot of different ways and make the catch. Just give him a chance at the goal line, the ball can kind of be wherever, and as long as it's high, he can jump up and move around and get it. He's a great jumper."

That's no overstatement.

Lloyd was a high-jump phenom in high school, becoming a state champion and prep All-American in the event. His personal-best mark of 7 feet, two inches ranked fourth in the nation in 1999. He also ranked seventh nationally with a long jump of 25-2.

Lloyd stood only 5-foot-10 in those days (he's now 6-foot and 192 pounds), but it was back then that he began the visualization in one sport that would help him years later in another.

"There's a mental aspect to high jumping seven feet," Lloyd said. "So I had to do a lot of visualization for that, just seeing myself do it in my mind. I learned that from high jumping in high school and college, the mental barrier of seeing the ground and then the bar at seven feet and then everything else behind it. So I just kind of transferred that over to football."

There's a physical correlation there that helps separate Lloyd from other receivers around the league.

"I think it's just more of the agility involved in being a high jumper," Lloyd said, "and the flexibility and being able to be fluid in my hips and being able to turn my weight and be able to keep running in one direction and being able to turn and make the catch – just that kind of stuff which you probably have seen a lot of guys can't do. But it just comes from being flexible."

It also comes from being creative.

Lloyd basks in his ability to make the circus catch and, while he doesn't feel that defines him as a football player, it is something he would like to refine and exploit for the enjoyment of football fans everywhere.

After all, Lloyd also is a showman. But that doesn't necessarily make him a showoff.

"I think just the creativity of those things is probably what makes me an attractive receiver, what people like to see," Lloyd said. "You watch (Cincinnati's) Chad Johnson play because you don't know what he's going to do next in the end zone. You watch me play because you don't know what kind of catch I'm going to do out there, what kind of play's going to happen out there."

To be sure, Lloyd wants to make it memorable on a regular basis.

"That's kind of one of those things," Lloyd said, "that in high school I read a quote from Michael Jordan saying that he always has to play his best every time he steps on the court because it's going to be somebody's first and last time seeing him play. So that's kind of the mentality I have in a game. Yeah, I want to do my best, but sometimes I want to do some cool stuff just for the entertainment value of it. I just enjoy doing that kind of thing."

That makes Lloyd one of the most enjoyable attractions on a San Francisco offense struggling to find its stride. He's one reason to keep watching even when the 49ers are losing, because you never know what the guy might do next while plucking a football out of the sky.

And, as Lloyd continues to improve his skill and technique as a receiver – something that's happening steadily the season – it's no stretch to say the best is still to come.

But the next time he snares a reception that can be described as nothing short of astonishing, don't expect everybody to be impressed.

For Brandon Lloyd, pass-catcher extraordinaire, there simply are no surprises left. He's already visualized every conceivable fabulous feat in his future.

"I've covered it all," Lloyd said without hesitation. "I've been there."

Now he eagerly anticipates opportunities to let everyone else in on the view.

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