Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sean Taylor RIP

“Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” –John Greenleaf Whittier

Yesterday I had planned to write my first post in a while. I was going to write that the Redskins playoff hopes were not even close to dead, which many of the pundits had been saying. How could they be dead when they were only one game behind the sixth-seed Lions and the Redskins owned the tie breaker against that team? I was going to write that the main reason for their three heartbreaking losses in a row, starting with the Eagles loss, was the absence of Sean Taylor, but that there was a lot of reason for hope because Taylor would soon be back.

The Redskins had held a 15 - 7 lead late in the game against the Eagles when Taylor sprained his knee, sadly, directly in front of my seats at FedEx Field. I remember watching him as he was resting on his hands and knees on the field long after he finished a tackle and I was thinking, “he’ll be back.” But, Taylor never returned.

Without Taylor to contend with, the Eagles started to exploit the part of the field—the deep middle—that Taylor had vacated. When Taylor was in the game, the Eagles did not even try to go near there. The Eagles scored four TDs and won after Taylor left the game—all of the TD plays went down the middle of the field.

I had planned to write that when Taylor was in the Redskins secondary, Terrell Owens had never even come close to having the kind of game that he had two weeks ago against the Skins. Owens scored all of the Cowboys’ points in that game two weeks ago. A quick search on YouTube would explain why Owens never had success against the Skins before. Taylor owned Owens. That's "owned" with a capital O, as can be seen starting at about 3:15 in this video of 2006 meetings. Owens hates being hit and Taylor was one of the most vicious hitters in the NFL.

Owens feared Taylor. Even when Taylor was a rookie playing his first game against the All-Self-Important Owens, Taylor sent a message. Taylor put Owens on the trainer’s table at 1:35 of this video. Then, on a play going to another receiver far away from Taylor, Owens ran into Taylor’s part of the field and shot off his mouth. The rookie Taylor told Owens to shut his mouth...with his forearm...to Owens’ head (2:15) (In his rookie year Taylor wore number 36 and Owens played for the Eagles). Those two videos only cover 2004 and 2006, but they give a good idea of the kind of player he was. They don't include great plays from the Skins 2005 playoff run and they don't include his performance this year, probably his best. He was not a dirty player, but he did inflict pain.

Immediately after the Eagles loss this year I was going to write about how frustrated I was that Taylor was going to miss his first game this year and that it was going to be the game against Owens. Since the first day of the season I was looking forward to seeing Taylor shut down Owens.

Owens never had a 100-yard game against the Skins when Taylor played and never had more than one TD. In four games over three seasons against a Taylor-led secondary (Owens was suspended for both games against the Skins in 2005) Owens had a total of 18 catches for 165 yards and just two TDs for an average of 4.5 catches, 41.3 yards and 0.5 TDS per game. Not bad, but Owens averages were significantly higher against other teams in those years. And it wasn’t like Owens’ teammates were not trying to get him the ball. It was that Taylor had repeatedly separated the ball from Owens and left him writhing on the ground in pain.

So, yesterday I was going to write that the Redskins were still very much in the thick of it, and because Taylor was expected back in a week or two, that they would make a run.

And, then I heard the news.

I feel terrible about the senselessness of this. This is an absolute tragedy of the kind that Aeschylus and Shakespeare could write: A warrior in the prime of his life, revered by many, who is about to embark on great conquests but is struck down by some fluke just before he realizes greatness.

I feel sadness for his family and friends. But, I did not know him personally, so I cannot feel what they do. What I do feel is this: I feel horrible for me as a huge fan of the Redskins, which is much, much, much, more selfish. I think that Taylor and his family would understand that and would appreciate it. It is homage to him.

What I know is that when he played for the Redskins, they were feared, and that kind of intimidation is extremely valuable in football. What I know is that Sean Taylor was as valuable to the Redskins franchise as Favre is to Green Bay, Owens is to Dallas, Peyton Manning is to Indianapolis, and Hester is to Chicago. People talked about how valuable Deion Sanders was because he took away one half of the field when quarterbacks refused to throw to his side. Well, Taylor was a sideline-to-sideline player who took away the whole field beyond fifteen yards from the line of scrimmage.

How good was Taylor? Gregg Williams was the Assistant Coach or Head Coach in charge of defense on three teams: The Titans (when they went to the super Bowl), the Bills, and now the Redskins. Williams has had the number one defense in his conference several times and had a top-ten defense for the Skins in two of his three seasons here. Over that time he has coached some outstanding defensive players (think about Kearse, Arrington, any of several Redskins Pro Bowlers, and dozens of Titans and Bills Pro Bowlers). After one season of coaching Taylor, Williams unequivocally said that Taylor was the best defensive player he had ever coached.

How athletic was Taylor? Larry Coker, his head coach at the University of Miami, said on today’s Mike and Mike show on ESPN that he recruited Taylor out of High School and couldn’t decide if he was a running back, wide receiver, linebacker, or defensive back; he felt he could play at a high level at any of these positions...for a National Championship team. Running back Clinton Portis said on today's John Thomson Show that when he was at Miami and they were recruiting Taylor he had the opportunity to see Taylor's high school football video where Taylor had played running back. He said he immediately asked, "what position does he want to play here (at Miami)?" When the coaches said "safety" Portis said "Good." Portis was afraid of losing his job.

Sean Taylor was not just a good safety in the NFL. He was a great safety and probably the best. Many have said he was a great safety because he had the size of a linebacker and the speed and cover abilities of a cornerback. And, he had a legendary love of laying the big hit. He not only played at a high level, he made the other ten players on his defense better, which is how the loss of just one player can make that much of a difference. He was just 24 years old, had not yet reached a peak, and had a long, great career ahead of him.

As long as he roamed the Redskins’ secondary, they were going to be very competitive. As a fan, I looked forward with optimism to the future success of the Skins. When the Redskins made the playoffs two years ago, it was a Taylor TD return of a fumble recovery against the Eagles that won it and clinched their playoff appearance. In the next game, in the Redskins only playoff win that year, it was an extremely athletic return of a fumble for a TD against the Bucs that gave the skins an insurmountable lead in what was a close game.

Taylor began his career in the NFL at a high level as a rookie and was getting better every year and every game. Before his minor knee injury three weeks ago against the Eagles, he was leading the NFL in interceptions. He’s still leading the NFC. Fittingly, this year, he handed Brett Favre his milestone, all-time interception record. Six more years of his kind of play and we would probably have been talking about several of the Championships that he helped the Redskins win, and we would have certainly been counting down the days until his induction in Canton.

“…the saddest are these: It might have been.”

God, I am a heartbroken fan today.

Rest in Peace Sean Taylor


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