Following an offseason filled with unflattering twists, rookie Sean Taylor needed only two preseason games to exorcise the notoriety and display the sublime talents that led the Washington Redskins to make him their top draft pick in April.
The 6-foot-2, 231-pound free safety is at ease on the football field, even with limited opportunities against experienced players at the game's highest level. Instead of negative headlines spurred by firing and rehiring agents, Taylor has garnered praise by intercepting two passes, returning one for a touchdown, and forcing a fumble.
"When I'm out there on the field, that's me in a nutshell," Taylor said. "You get every explanation you can possibly want. I go out there, I hit. I go out there, I catch the ball. That's where I get to release myself and be Sean."
After beginning his NFL career as a third-stringer, the University of Miami product has used his ball-hawking and heavyweight-hitting abilities to move up the Redskins' depth chart while becoming used to his surroundings. Tonight, Taylor, a 21-year-old Miami native, returns to his comfort zone as the Redskins play their third preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at Miami's Pro Player Stadium, not far from his old stomping grounds.
Until signing with Washington, Taylor had never lived anywhere else, starring at Miami's Gulliver Prep before joining the Hurricanes, where he turned into one of the nation's premier safeties. Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach-defense, is contemplating inserting Taylor into the game early to see how he fares against Miami's first offensive unit.
"For us to go back even to the state of Florida is going to be exciting," said Taylor, wearing a white T-shirt of his new teammate and friend, tailback Clinton Portis, with the words "Run, Clinton, Run. Eight More Years" written on it. "It's different because it's home," Taylor said. "You'll see under the lights Saturday night. You'll be in for a treat. We're going to go out there and play hard."
Taylor described the Miami visit as a business trip. Following a walk-through practice at Redskins Park yesterday morning, the Redskins arrived in Miami late in the afternoon before an 8 p.m. meeting and 11 p.m. curfew. The Redskins are scheduled to fly back to Washington shortly after the 7:30 game, but Taylor hoped to find time to spend time with family.
Redskins linebacker Mike Barrow, a 12-year veteran, has experienced the excitement of returning to Miami for an NFL game after playing for the Hurricanes. Barrow expects Taylor will be cheered by a throng of Dolphins fans along with family and friends. The drawback to the attention is that a lackluster performance will bring a skewering when Taylor returns to Miami, where Hurricanes alumni such as Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Portis regularly work out during the offseason.
"You definitely want to do well in front of home boys," Barrow said. "They are Dolphin fans but they are Sean Taylor fans. So you've got to do well, because if you don't do well, they're going to tell you about it."
Portis believes that the off-field issues surrounding Taylor in the offseason stemmed from him moving to a city other than Miami for the first time, coupled with him becoming a high-profile professional athlete. Taylor fired agent Drew Rosenhaus following a news conference at Redskins Park two days after the April draft; was fined $25,000 by the NFL for leaving a mandatory rookie symposium in June; and fired his new agents, Eugene Mato and Jeff Moorad, before rehiring Rosenhaus because of unhappiness over a seven-year, incentive-laden contract potentially worth $40 million.
"He means well," Portis said. "Reading the headlines you'd think he's a jerk and unappreciative. But that man is appreciative of everything. His teammates love being around him.
"He's in a new environment and he's shied away from some people. He doesn't know what people are around for. He's just learning. He's never been away from Miami, and now all of a sudden he moved to Washington, D.C., and he's a millionaire. He's just feeling his way through."
Redskins teammates and coaches say that Taylor is an amiable person who works hard in practice. "He's quiet, but he's also fun-loving behind the scenes," Williams said. "Guys like talking to him. But he's quiet and rookies should be quiet. He's got to prove himself before he talks."
Although Taylor didn't speak to the media for the first two weeks of training camp, he was at ease interacting with fans and signing autographs after each practice.
"When I came from Miami, I was never a person where they always had a microphone in front of my face but nonetheless I gave interviews," Taylor said. "And just coming to a new city, I don't want to be the one that's in the media every day saying I'm the best player and I can do this and I can do that."
Taylor added: "You just have to get to know me. I'm a good guy, man. It's hard for me to take trust in people . . . In a perfect world everybody would be trustworthy. But everybody isn't, so I take precautions."
Taylor made his NFL preseason debut on the second unit during Washington's 20-17 victory over the Denver Broncos on Aug. 9. In a game replete with penalties and other gaffes, Taylor showed polish as the Redskins best performer, intercepting two passes despite limited playing time.
During a 23-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers last week, Taylor sparkled after entering the game in the second quarter, viciously tackling tailback DeShaun Foster to force a fumble that was recovered by Carolina.
The performances haven't catapulted Taylor into a starting role, which he will almost certainly capture by Sept. 12, Washington's regular season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field. Taylor's rare combination of size, speed and strength appear to make him a can't-miss prospect. "Nobody questions his physical gifts," Williams said. "He's got to get into the mental part of the ball game at this level."
Entering his third NFL game back home, there's no doubt that Taylor has made great strides on and off the field.
"People that have been around me know that I'm a player who plays the game with a passion," Taylor said, "and I go out there and give all I have and I do nothing more than love the fans and love the team I play for.
"Life is a learning process. Everybody learns."