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Washington to retire Sean Taylor’s jersey Sunday; team president apologizes for short notice

In a Jan. 1, 2006, win over Philadelphia, Washington safety Sean Taylor dived into the end zone after recovering a fumble in the fourth quarter. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post) (Toni Sandys)
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This story has been updated.

The Washington Football Team announced Thursday morning that it will officially retire the No. 21 jersey of safety Sean Taylor on Sunday. Taylor is the third player to receive the honor, joining No. 33 Sammy Baugh and No. 49 Bobby Mitchell.

Before Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the team will honor Taylor during an on-field ceremony with his family and rename a road leading to FedEx Field after him. Taylor, one of the NFL’s best defensive players during his brief career, became a fan favorite for his physical and fearless play before he was killed during a robbery attempt at his Florida home Nov. 27, 2007. He was 24.

The retirement comes at the end of a turbulent two weeks for the organization, which included a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of team headquarters and the revelation of incendiary emails between former team president Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden, who resigned as the Las Vegas Raiders’ coach Monday following their publication.

Yet news of the announcement drew ire and frustration from fans and former players, many of whom questioned the timing, with only three days’ notice. The swift backlash prompted a lengthy apology from Jason Wright, the team president, who wrote in a “President’s Brief” published Thursday night on the team’s website that after months of planning the retirement ceremony, Washington “screwed up the execution” and “hurt many of our fans deeply.”

“And for that I and we as an organization are sorry,” he wrote. “We thought that saving the news for a game week reveal was the best way to focus the message on Sean and his legacy. We didn’t realize that so many of you wanted to make a trip to FedEx Field to be present for this moment — a true lack of understanding of what you, the lifeblood of this franchise, needed to mourn our collective loss and celebrate Sean’s legacy.”

In the morning news release about the tribute, the team said Taylor’s family will have a chance to visit his locker, which has been “perfectly preserved from his last game.” The first 10,000 fans to enter the stadium will receive a commemorative rally towel similar to the one created following Taylor’s death, and players will sport a helmet sticker honoring him while staffers wear a No. 21 lapel pin.

In the apology that followed, Wright said fans will also be able to purchase the rally towels for $21 apiece, with all proceeds going to “a legacy project” in Sean Taylor’s honor that will be led by his daughter, Jackie Taylor.

On Thursday afternoon, as fans voiced their displeasure with the team’s announcement, former Washington defensive back Ryan Clark, now an ESPN analyst, defended the event by writing on Twitter that former running back Tim Hightower, the team’s director of alumni relations, texted him Sept. 22 to invite him to Sunday’s pregame ceremony. “In his text he told me they’d be honoring Sean and his family,” Clark wrote. “Which I assumed was the reason I got the invite since I hadn’t been before.”

“Maybe they should have told others also, and used the word RETIRING,” Brian Mitchell, a former running back and return specialist, replied to Clark. “We’ve had many discussions [and] it was never mentioned.”

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The early criticism prompted the team to issue a follow-up statement to clarify things, which Wright later reiterated.

“What we wanted to do was make good on something we know was long overdue,” he wrote. “ … So, prior to the season, we put a plan in place to retire the jerseys of some of the great men who helped build this historic franchise. Bobby Mitchell and Sean Taylor are the start of what we hope will become an honored tradition here as it is in many other places.”

Drafted fifth overall out of Miami in 2004, Taylor quickly became one of the NFL’s top safeties. During the 2005 season, he helped Washington capture its most recent playoff victory — a 17-10 win at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which he had a 51-yard fumble return for a touchdown. In 2006, he registered 114 tackles and was a Pro Bowl selection, and in his next season, which was cut short, he was posthumously named second-team all-pro.

“As the guy who really wanted us to start honoring players better and differently — in line with what they paid in the blood, sweat, and tears — I’m angry and sad that we messed up your opportunity to honor Sean in person this weekend,” Wright continued in his apology to fans. “ … My hope is that you can meaningfully celebrate Sean as his jersey is retired this weekend and every time you travel down Sean Taylor Road — this weekend and in the future.”

Del Rio on Gruden

Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said he was stunned to learn about the emails from Gruden, which contained racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments.

“It was, I guess, shocking,” said Del Rio, who was head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 2015 to 2017. “Embarrassingly bad for a person in that position to have those kinds of thoughts and to express them like that. I don’t have much respect for it.”

When asked whether he thought the emails were representative of a broader problem in the NFL, Del Rio said he didn’t know but added, “That’s not been my experience.”

Injury updates

Third-string tight end Sammis Reyes (back) was added to Washington’s lengthy injury report. Right tackle Sam Cosmi (ankle), right guard Brandon Scherff (knee), and wide receivers Curtis Samuel (groin) and Cam Sims (hamstring) did not participate in practice Thursday, and wide receiver Dyami Brown (knee) and running back Antonio Gibson (shin) were limited.

On defense, linebacker Jared Norris (shoulder) did not participate, and lineman Jonathan Allen (knee), linebacker Cole Holcomb (shoulder) and end James Smith-Williams (toe) were limited.