Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor's haymaker hit sent Dallas Cowboys wideout Patrick Crayton flying a few yards backward from the first-down line Monday night. After the pivotal incomplete pass on third and four from the Redskins 42-yard line with about two minutes left during Washington's 14-13 comeback victory -- Taylor was the least demonstrative defender. He accepted congratulations from jubilant teammates as he sauntered with a scowl, getting ready for the next play.
Taylor's businesslike approach on the field has been a stark contrast to last year, when he sometimes taunted opponents or screamed obscenities after a hit. "He used to have little antics after the play," said safety Ryan Clark, one of his best friends on the team. "This year, he's just more focused: 'I'm going to play football.' "
Off the field, Taylor has also made striking changes. He is no longer occasionally tardy for meetings. He lifts weights more frequently, is more vocal in meetings and has taken a leadership role on the field.
"His maturity level has shot through the roof," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "I don't know why it is. But I've seen a very, very significant change in his maturity level. Just his focus is different."
Cornerback Shawn Springs added: "He's been totally different this year than he was last year. You obviously see that he's more mature. I don't know if the incident in Miami scared him or what. The way he carries himself, the way he studies, what he understands: His approach to the game is totally different."
The most significant difference is that the 6-foot-3, 232-pound free safety has tackled the one area that his coaches had felt might keep him from achieving greatness: Taylor has become more of a student of the game after relying on his sublime athleticism and instincts last year.
"When I came in as a rookie, a lot of the stuff I didn't think was necessary," Taylor said Thursday. "As I've become older and wiser, I began understanding, it helps. It counts. It lets you get on the plays a little bit faster instead of guessing.
"You always should improve as a player and as a person. Every day is a different day to get better and more wise about the game. I just take things in stride, and put as much as I can into football while I'm here."
Taylor faces a mandatory minimum of three years in jail after being charged with one count of aggravated assault with a firearm and one misdemeanor count of simple battery stemming from a June 1 confrontation in Miami. Taylor admits that the experience provided him with a new perspective, but said he would have shown some maturity regardless of his court case.
"I'm getting better as a person and I don't want to just be a mediocre player," said Taylor, whose trial date has been postponed until Oct. 24, although it is expected to be delayed until after the season. "I don't want to be just a guy holding a spot on the team. I want to try to be the best at what I do. If that means putting in more work in on my end, that's what I'm doing to do."
As director of player development for the Redskins, John Jefferson's duties include counseling players and helping young players adjust to the NFL life. Jefferson said that NFL players typically mature most between their second and third season. So Jefferson doesn't necessarily believe that the Miami incident is the reason Taylor has made strides as a professional. "What brought that on I don't know," said Jefferson. "I'm not going to sit here and say it was the incident."
Arrington added, "If it is, it was probably a blessing in disguise because he's conducting himself a lot differently."
Last year, Taylor was fined nearly $20,000 for personal fouls and violating NFL uniform rules. Taylor, nicknamed the "Grim Reaper" by Arrington, developed an aura with his bone-rattling hits -- that sometimes were late. Taylor also inserted glistening gold plates over his front teeth. "What he did do last year by his behavior on the field, he let it be known he wasn't a guy that you really wanted to fool with," Clark said. "People were scared to come across the middle. Once you established yourself like that as a presence physically, now he can play the mental part of the game."
Teammates stressed that Taylor's affable personality hasn't changed. He remains mostly self-effacing in a locker room with several loud voices. "He's always been a good guy, quiet," Clark said. "But he's really trying to grasp what it means to be a real professional."
Taylor admits to being more careful about the places he goes because of the Miami incident. Instead of being in the typical spots for a 22-year-old NFL player, Taylor has limited himself this season.
"I just took heed, with the problems I've had," Taylor said. "What I do is I just try to make it hard to get caught in any of that stuff. I'm going to be at home. I don't mind going to a guy's house. I don't mind going over to shoot pool, talk crap, watch a game, TV or something like that. Other than that, I'm here about business: football and winning games. We can hang out and talk. But I'm not here to mess around."