By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007
In a rare interview session with members of the media, Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor confirmed yesterday what his teammates and coaches have been saying about him since this spring: He has intensified his preparations for this season by improving his diet and spending more time studying game film.
"It's almost like we play a kid's game for a king's ransom, and if you don't take it seriously enough, one day you're going to say, 'Oh, I could have did this, or I could have did that.' " Taylor said. "I'll just say that I'm healthy right now, and I'm going into my fourth year, so why not do the best that I can? Whether it's eating right, whether it's training myself right, or whether it's studying harder. It's whatever I can do to better myself."
The Redskins said Taylor, a former fifth overall pick out of Miami, appears more mature and more comfortable as a public figure. Teammates have marveled at his conditioning; he is more svelte and less bulky in his chest and shoulders (he has cut down on fat intake and is eating lots of fish, teammates said). Taylor casts as intimidating and imposing figure as ever on the field, but seems built as much for speed as for contact now. The Redskins list him at 212 pounds, and he was listed at 232 pounds in last year's media guide, but Taylor countered by saying, "I'm the same weight [as last year], 225."
Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, believes that a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in February, where Taylor was surrounded by the best in the game, has the safety aspiring to new heights, and Taylor did not entirely rebuff that notion, either.
"I like the fact that I got to meet other players from different teams, and just knowing it was something other than football -- it was football, but when we had our time off we talked and we talked about totally different things from football," Taylor said.
Taylor is the most mysterious individual on the team, allowing very few people into his inner sanctum, and is wary of reporters. Taylor talked to the press only twice last season, usually rebuffing interview requests in a friendly enough manner. Even his own teammates sometimes wonder precisely what is on his mind. "He keeps to himself a lot, but he's a great teammate," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said.
Trust must be earned over time, and in his world people are often seen as being with him or against him, teammates said. He can be moody and aloof or approachable and cheery, depending on the day, so it was not unexpected that he suddenly chose a perfectly random afternoon for the brief interview session, surprising even the Redskins' public relations staff, which was scurrying to find a tape recorder to document the moment.
The Redskins are desperate for more playmakers on defense after setting a modern record with just 12 takeaways in 2006, and Williams has curtailed the complexity of his defense to cater more to the natural athleticism of players like Taylor. He called Taylor the greatest athlete he has ever worked with and likes the early returns of the new defensive scheme.
"It's been fun to see his comfortability right now in what we're doing defensively because of removing a lot of extra stuff," Williams said.
To that end, Taylor is now playing "center field" as a free safety, hanging deep in the secondary to make plays on the ball and brutalize receivers. Taylor picked off four passes as a rookie but has just three interceptions in 31 games since -- one less than departed safety Ryan Clark in that span -- but played down the significance of his new role as the designated free safety. "I'm a safety -- I play free, strong, whatever you ask me to play," Taylor said.
His coaches admit that a rotating cast of starting safeties next to Taylor has not aided his development or helped bring him out of his shell.
Clark, who was allowed to leave in free agency after the 2005 season, is the only player to start even the equivalent of a half-season's worth of games with Taylor. Clark made 22 starts next to him, while Adam Archuleta, who failed here last season and was traded in the offseason, has the second-most starts alongside Taylor (seven). Players and coaches stressed their belief that Taylor is craving stability with a long-term partner, and the coaches broke their edict of not starting rookies right away in order to get LaRon Landry, April's sixth overall pick, on the field with Taylor from the onset.
Clark was Taylor's closest friend on the team, and losing him in free agency was a blow, numerous team members believe. Some link Taylor's erratic play to losing the only real partner he ever had in the secondary -- calling Clark a stabilizing force for him -- but Taylor, predictably, played down the development.
"I don't think it's a who-I-feel-comfortable-with type of situation," Taylor said. "I don't think anybody in the NFL is tied to each other."
Taylor declined to specify if he still speaks to Clark, calling it a "personal" matter, but Clark, speaking on his cellphone from camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said they remain friends, although their communication can be as sporadic as Taylor's interaction with members of the media.
"He texts me out of blue sometimes," said Clark, who will return to FedEx Field with Pittsburgh on Saturday. "Sean talks to me on his own time, which I respect, and a lot of the time I text him and he doesn't text back. Then he'll hit me back weeks later and say, 'What's up?' He lets me know he appreciates me as a person, and we're still cool. We never talk too much about football, just staying focused on life and our families and things in general.
"Sometimes guys just click and we did. I didn't want anything from him, and he knew that, and I genuinely care about him and I still do keep him in my prayers. I want to see him do well and it was great to see him go to the Pro Bowl and get his due, but I worry about perceptions people have of him. He's really a good, quiet kid, and he knew I understood that about him, and we ended up becoming close."