By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The possibilities, from a coaching perspective, seemed limitless. Sean Taylor had evolved into such a complete safety, such a unique defender, that sometimes the staff would sit around after practice and dream up ways to use him.
They could envision a time when Taylor and fellow safety LaRon Landry would split out wide just before the snap to cover receivers one-on-one, while the cornerbacks blitzed. They could foresee Taylor and Landry overloading one side on a safety blitz, with corner Shawn Springs switching to safety. They might line Taylor up as an outside linebacker. He had the size and ability to shadow any tight end in the NFL. From a matchup perspective, anything was possible.
Taylor was one of the premier athletes in the NFL, and the best pure football player on the Washington Redskins, and, while performing at an all-pro level last season, died before he could live up to his full potential. Just 24, Taylor was shot a year ago today and died the next day. The loss was a devastating tragedy that pierced the franchise on emotional, mental, spiritual and physical planes. Yet the defense has persevered.
The Redskins surged to the playoffs without him, and are ranked third in total defense this season despite losing their most ferocious, productive and versatile player. The twin principles defensive coordinator Greg Blache most espouses -- stop the run and eliminate the big play -- have been achieved even in his absence. The unit has longed for the game-changing moments that seemed to come so naturally to Taylor but the ability of coaches and players to shine without him is a testament to their collective efforts.
"That's just the way we do things here," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "He was a big part of it, and one thing about the guys here, they strive to keep it going the way it was when he was here."
Landry, a starter as a rookie last year, had just begun to earn the coaches' trust in coverage when Taylor died. The chemistry between them was only budding; they were about to become the interchangeable weapons that Gregg Williams, then the assistant head coach-defense, believed would anchor the defense for a decade.
"The big thing with Sean is we knew he could cover so much ground," said Williams, now the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. "In that last year he had matured so much, to the point where his teammates felt comfortable taking chances, knowing that he could cover up their errors. And we as coaches knew that he could save so many plays in a ballgame. As LaRon evolved, and with what Sean had become, it would have been the toughest safety tandem in the National Football League for a lot of years to come."
But even with Landry just a work in progress, the Redskins still enjoyed luxuries they no longer have. They had two safeties who were comfortable in the run front, who could blitz, who could creep to the line of scrimmage and draw immediate attention, then both drop back at the last moment to form a cover-2 look.
"Losing Sean was like losing two or three players in terms of scheme," cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray said. "We had two guys back there at safety who could do everything, and the offense had no idea who was going to do what."
After Taylor's death, Landry had to shift into Taylor's role in coverage as a free safety. This season, standout rookie Chris Horton is playing strong safety, and though his physicality might conjure images of Taylor, comparisons with the Pro Bowler are unfair to both.
"It's an honor for anyone to say I do anything like he did, in any way," said Horton, a seventh-round pick. "But I'll never be half the safety he was. That's just a reality."
Blache has stripped away much of the complexity and exotic blitz looks of his predecessor, wanting his players to master five or six packages. No doubt he knows that the sacks and turnovers that have eluded this defense most likely would have proliferated by virtue of Taylor's skills alone, but from the earliest days of training camp has urged his defensive players to focus solely on what they have, and what they can control.
"One of the secrets of being successful is being realists about who are we, and what we are capable of doing, and then going out and doing it," Blache said. "We've been successful because we recognize who we are."
The Redskins have faced many of the league's premier passing teams, and shut most of them down. Blache has continued to play a majority of press-man coverage, with one safety deep, with good results. Cornerback Carlos Rogers is playing the best football of his life and even losing Springs for much of the season to injury has not derailed the unit, with its team-first approach.
"It's like a brotherhood with us back there now," corner Fred Smoot said. "The bonds between us are even stronger after losing Sean. And when you feel like you're playing for your brother, like a real family, it brings out the best in you. I know Sean's watching over us, too. He's still a part of this thing. He's helping us from up there."
Players say they still feel Taylor's presence on the field, and he remains a constant in the defensive meeting rooms. As they review film each week, Taylor invariably appears, often leveling a receiver or prying the ball from a running back's hands.
It is then that they can't help but think about what could have been and the pain that lingers. Teammates still talk of his prowess in tones reserved for superheroes. Plays that must be devised now were the domain of one singular talent.
Undoubtedly, the defense would be more dominant with him, better equipped for another late postseason run. How much better will never be known.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we'd be the number-one-ranked defense in the NFL with Sean, without question," middle linebacker London Fletcher said quietly, with no trace of bravado. "I don't have a problem saying that. We would be dominating teams. I only got to play with him for seven or eight games, but I've never seen anybody do the things he could do.
"We see it every week when watch film. We don't even talk about it anymore. We see him do something on film and the room just goes quiet. No one has to say anything. We're all thinking the same thing."