The right words can speak volumes.
Nathan Palmer listened to a few well-placed words and turned them into the biggest moment of his young NFL career.
Palmer, who was fighting for a wide receiver roster spot with the San Francisco 49ers, had dropped a pass in last Thursday’s final preseason game with San Diego.
Frustrated and disappointed, Palmer was sought out by head coach Jim Harbaugh along the sidelines.
“He comes over and he could tell I was down,’’ Palmer said. “He said, ‘You need to act like you belong ... act like you want to make a play. I’m not seeing it right now.’”
Harbaugh told the Elkhart native to play with confidence.
Palmer was sent back to the field. On the next snap, he turned a short sideline screen pass into a 51-yard touchdown, his first in four games.
Words transformed into an action and on the very next play.
Palmer got it right.
“The coach told me, ‘We’re going to come back to you ... do what you’ve done all camp,’’’ Palmer said.
With the mandatory cut to a 53-man roster just two days away, every move, every catch and every moment was being scrutinized.
So when the play called for a quarterback read by Josh Johnson — if the cornerback was one-on-one to Palmer’s side of the field and if he was more than five yards off the line, go with the quick screen.
“In the pre-snap read, I thought, ‘Yea, he’s kind of deep,’’’ Palmer recalled of the setup. “Josh Johnson always wants to throw those throws. The guy had inside leverage, but took a bad angle.’’
All Palmer had to do was make the corner miss and he’d have a wide open sideline to the end zone.
“My heart started beating fast. All I could think about was: don’t get caught,’’ Palmer said. “If I got caught, I knew I’d be the laughingstock of the locker room.”
All good. And the touchdown may have begun with Harbaugh’s well-timed assessment.
“He’s a great coach, a great motivator,’’ Palmer said. “Anytime you sit and listen to him, you always learn something. He could say the same thing over and over and I get something different every time.”
A day after the play, Palmer waited for the phone call from the club — the call which would determine his immediate future. He didn’t make the opening-day roster and was officially cut.
But the 49ers quickly placed Palmer on their eight-man practice squad.
Translation: He still has a paying job, he still gets to work with the team on a daily basis and he’ll travel to all games.
“Napalm’’ still has to work hard and show up to work every day to play.
In the “one moment you’re here, next moment you’re gone’’ life of the NFL, Palmer is one Michael Crabtree blown knee or one Randy Moss separated shoulder away from playing on Sundays.
There’s zero time to relax.
“They were happy with the way I performed” Palmer said, “and even with a lot of proven receivers in camp, they wanted to keep me around and develop me for the future.”
During practices, Palmer will learn and run the opposition receiver’s pass routes, he’ll contribute on special teams, and in some situations, he’ll help out the cornerbacks on defense.
Knowledge in how he’s covered by defenses fuels his experience on offense.
Palmer’s work ethic, his hunger to learn and his conditioning will be watched carefully by the 49ers and by the league’s other 31 teams, who could have an offer for the 5-foot, 9-inch Northern Illinois graduate at any time.
The lessons never stop coming.
“There’s a lot of work. You’re not just out there running around,’’ Palmer said. “I have to give them my best. I don’t want to be out of shape.
“I’ve been blessed ... I have to be ready to play.”
Bill Beck is The Truth’s sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.