Wide receiver Taylor Jacobs is something of a legend on the practice fields at Redskins Park. He routinely produces big plays against the Washington Redskins' starting defense, showing off the speed and hands that made him a second-round draft pick just two years ago.
His superior performances during offseason practices and in the workout program had teammates and coaches raving. They would invoke his name, unsolicited, when asked how the 2005 offense was shaping up, and the coaches saw him as a major factor in the upcoming season. The Redskins resisted the urge to draft a wide receiver, believing Jacobs could be a deep threat who would challenge free agent David Patten for a starting job.
"I was just ready to go," Jacobs said of his offseason progress, "and ready to make something happen. And then another injury happened."
Instead of having a breakout season, Jacobs has been one of many frustrations for the Redskins this fall. He continued his string of injuries, suffering a dislocated big toe that sidelined him for much of training camp.
"I had big plans for him to show what he can do," receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "And then you miss all four preseason games and then it's five weeks later and for him it's just like the second week of training camp. Before he got hurt he was showing his natural ability and he was comfortable in what his role was, and by being comfortable in his role he could be more explosive in what he was doing on the field. But then we had that setback and we had to start all over."
When he returned, he managed only two receptions for 33 yards through the Redskins' first nine games, figuring sporadically as the third receiver.
All the while, Jacobs could sense the growing anguish with this latest injury. Jacobs appeared in just eight games as a rookie after suffering a lingering abdominal injury in the preseason, catching three balls. He was slowed by a nagging injury during 2004 training camp, did not play in the season opener and finished with only 15 receptions last season when the team used three-receiver sets sparingly. He was often the number four receiver. He knew that another lost season would not bode well for his future here. Jacobs, a deeply religious individual who peppers his speech with "Yes, sirs," and "No, sirs," turned to prayer for solace.
"They expected me to be at a certain level and not get hurt," Jacobs said, "and it just happened again. So I'm sure they were frustrated with me, and then it was like, 'Hey, you've got to do something, you've got to get right.' And that's what I did. I just leaned on my Lord and just got it right."
When Patten suffered a season-ending knee injury, Jacobs was thrust into the starting lineup. Against the Oakland Raiders, Jacobs had three short receptions despite quarterback Mark Brunell's repeated attempts to get him the ball deep.
But last week against San Diego, Jacobs had three timely third-down grabs. He finished with only 44 yards, the second highest total of his career, but the performance was the first glint of hope that Jacobs could one day wind up being worth a second-round pick. Jacobs was one of several Florida Gators brought to Washington by their former coach Steve Spurrier. The Redskins took him with the 44th overall pick, and when Spurrier left town, Jacobs's attributes caught the attention of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs and his staff, who believed he had the potential to make an impact. Having Gibbs call plays featuring him last week, and having Brunell look his way with the team in need of first downs, helped put Jacobs at ease.
"When pressure situations come like third downs and coach calls your number, before I might be a little bit jittery, but when coach calls your number he expects you to do something and I just try to go out there and be really comfortable and just do what you've been practicing all week," Jacobs said.
Tomorrow, Jacobs (6 feet, 202 pounds) will line up on the fast synthetic surface in St. Louis against a Rams defense that is the league's third-worst against the pass. Although he said his toe is not completely healthy, the Redskins will need him to play well to help keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.
"He's a good route runner," Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn said, "and he can run full speed and then make a cut, like a 90-degree angle, on a dime and not lose stride at all. He's got all the characteristics you would see in any good receiver: good height, he can catch. He's the total package, if he could just overcome the injury bug."
Jacobs relies heavily on a custom orthotic insert in his shoe to cushion the discomfort caused by the toe injury, and said even walking is difficult without it. "It's hard in spots and softer in other spots," said Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' director of sports medicine, "and it spreads out the stress on the bottom of his foot in an equal proportion so it's not so much stress on his big toe."
"Every week I'm getting better and feeling better," Jacobs said.
So far, however, Washington's defense is the only one in the NFL to fear the youngster, with his talent yet to manifest itself on Sundays.
"He's just a kid that needs to stay healthy long enough for everybody else to see it," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, "but in practice our defensive backs, our secondary, they know where he is at all times, because he can run by you. He's got good, legitimate deep speed in this league, and he just for whatever reason has been unlucky with an injury here or there. It's nice to see him getting his legs back under him. Believe me, our defense knows enough about him, and he puts enough pressure on us in practice."