Friday, November 26, 2010

Sean Taylor (April 1, 1983 – November 27, 2007), RIP

Current Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has said of Redskins safety, LaRon Landry, that he is the best athlete he has ever coached, and Shanahan coaches linebacker Brian Orakpo, one of the most athletic players in the game. And, don’t forget, Shanahan coached John Elway and traded one great athlete—Clinton Portis—for another—Champ Bailey. Both players will likely end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so that is saying something special about Landry.

It is true that Landry is freakishly athletic, but Mike Shanahan never coached Sean Taylor.

Tomorrow, November 27, will mark the three-year anniversary of the murder of Taylor. He had injured his knee in the Philadelphia game in November of 2007. He was leading the NFL in interceptions at the time. The Redskins were travelling that Thanksgiving weekend and the injured Taylor was allowed to stay home with his family. He was shot in his bedroom when he stood between intuders and his wife and daughter.

Taylor, who was Joe Gibbs’ first draft pick in his second coaching tenure, would be twenty-seven years old today and would have spent the last three years and the next five in the prime of his football career. We Redskins fans can only dream of the championships Taylor and Landry would have helped bring to Washington. That tandem would have been known as the best that the NFL has ever seen.

Taylor, a first-round draft pick (fifth overall) in 2004 and Landry who was a first-round draft pick (sixth overall) in 2007, only played nine games together. Yet, NFL fans had already given a nickname to the space in the defensive backfield occupied by Taylor and Landry. It was known as Area 51, which referenced the sum of their two uniform numbers and someplace in Roswell, New Mexico believed to be occupied by people with alien talents.

YouTube is filled with tribute videos for Sean Taylor and many are very good. I picked the middle two below for their music more than anything. In them you will find the whiplash-inducing hits, but more impressive is Taylor’s unbelievable ability to play the receiver or runner and deliver punishing hits at the same time that he is playing the ball. The jump ball to Randy Moss (#84) of the Vikings is a prime example.

(For new fans, Taylor wore number 36 as a rookie with the Redskins and number 21 thereafter. He wore number 26 while at the University of Miami. And, he wore number one while in High School (blue uniforms).

In mid-air Taylor knocked the ball away from Moss with one hand and began to pull him down with the other (at 2:25 in the first video). However, the ball seemed to hang in the air for seconds, which would have given the gifted Moss the chance to grab it. It was the type of catch that Moss has made many times in his career. Taylor saw that and pushed the ball away with his fingertips like he was setting a volleyball, all while in the air, and then took that same arm and slammed Moss to the ground. Taylor was a freak. I truly believe he would have been known as the greatest defensive player in the history of the game if he had been able to play ten years.

And, while there were some players to which Taylor took exception, especially Terrell Owens, Taylor was not dirty. His hits were punishing, but except for the elbow that he threw to Owens’ head when Taylor was a relatively unknown rookie and Owens was on top of the world, his hits were clean and below the neck. One piece of evidence to support that claim can be found at about 57 seconds of the second video, when a hated Cowboys receiver (#83) was in Taylor’s neighborhood. And, yes, Taylor quickly learned to hate the Cowboys. The receiver’s arms suddenly got short while reaching for a pass in front of him. Taylor could have leveled him without penalty, and I think lesser safetys would have if only because they did not have his athleticism to enable them to pull up. Taylor pulled up and stared down the receiver at the same time. The message was sent.

In these compilations you will find four plays that I will always remember and that make me sad even as I write this, thinking what the Redskins have missed. The first play is the fumble return for a TD against Philadelphia in 2005. That return clinched a playoff spot for the Redskins, the first since Joe Gibbs returned, and it came in Taylor’s second year in the league. His dive into the endzone was the iconic picture that the Redskins used to close their tribute video to Sean Taylor. The second memorable play came in the week after that playoff-clinching game. It was in the playoffs in Tampa Bay. Taylor scooped up a fumble by his ankles almost in full stride, scored a touchdown, and sealed the first playoff win since Gibbs came back. Two weeks in a row; two playoff-caliber winning plays. That is what we came to expect from Taylor.

There is a photo, briefly flashed at 5:45 in the third video, of LaRon Landry alone on the bench with his head down in Seattle. It was during a playoff game in 2007. The Redskins buried Taylor and went on a four-game winning streak at the end of the season to make it there. The entire team had dedicated the season to Taylor. Landry, a rookie, had just done everything he could to help win the game with two picks of Hasselbeck, and the Skins had a late lead, but they could not hold it. I often wondered what Landry was thinking.

The final two memorable plays that I will highlight came in two games against Bill Parcells’ Cowboys. Both can be found in the last video. The first came in a game in 2005 in which the Redskins scored two touchdowns on bombs to Santana Moss in the last four minutes in Dallas to beat the Cowboys 14-13. The Taylor play in that game was the next-to-last play of Dallas's last possession. The Cowboys were on the Redskins 43 yard line and threatening to score the game winning field goal with 1:57 left in the game. On third down, Cowboys receiver Crayton was about to catch a pass to give the Cowboys a first down at the 40. Taylor hit him so hard the ball flew backwards for about ten yards; game over.

The final memorable play that I will write about here (there were so many) came in a tie game in 2006 in Washington after Cowboys tight end Jason Witten caught a pass over the middle with about ten seconds left in the game to put the Cowboys in field goal range. Witten was talking smack as he and his teammates were lining up for the game winning kick. Troy Vincent blocked the field goal try and Taylor scooped it up, reversed course, looped around, was grabbed by the facemask, dislodged himself and returned the ball to the cowboys’ forty-five yard line with no time on the clock. But, the facemask penalty pushed the ball to within field goal range and the game was allowed to continue for one untimed down. Redskins win.

So many of the Redskins’ wins from 2004 through 2007 could be traced directly to Taylor’s play. I still think his death in 2007 hit Joe Gibbs pretty hard and influenced Gibbs' decision to step down after that year.

A compilation of highlights by Matt McFarland can be found at the Washington Post


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