Redskins S Taylor's problems are now between the lines
ASHBURN, Va. -- Sean Taylor got fooled twice on the same play.
He bit when Donte' Stallworth faked an out pattern, then bit again when Donovan McNabb faked a handoff. A few seconds later, Stallworth was racing toward the end zone with Taylor trailing helplessly in his wake, having caught a deep pass from McNabb over the middle for an 84-yard touchdown.
This was the year Taylor was supposed to be the beast, "the best player in the NFL," according to teammate Clinton Portis. The Washington Redskins safety, who was in constant trouble during his first two seasons, finally had his legal problems behind him and was free to concentrate on terrifying receivers, quarterbacks and running backs league-wide.
It hasn't happened. Stallworth's touchdown in the game at Philadelphia two weeks ago was only the most obvious symptom of something gone wrong. Taylor is missing tackles, taking bad angles and leaving receivers open. It's still true that no one hits harder -- he's hasn't lost his knack for committing personal fouls -- but it's clear he's not the same.
Through 10 games, he has no interceptions, no sacks, no fumble recoveries and has batted away only three passes. He's part of a secondary that has allowed an NFL-high 41 pass plays of at least 20 yards.
"For whatever reason, sometimes you have a tough time," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "I don't know if it's something he ate, something he drank, a different hairdo. You can't really explain it."
Maybe someone can. If Taylor is playing like he's lost one of his best friends, that's because he has.
Taylor and Ryan Clark were close buddies last year, and they made a great tag-team at the back of the defense. Clark was vocally assertive and would make sure the rest of the secondary was organized, just the sort of thing a young, raw talent like Taylor needed.
But the Redskins let Clark go to the Steelers, where he is playing well at an affordable price: four years, $7.1 million. His replacement in Washington is Adam Archuleta, who got $10 million in guaranteed money but has played so poorly that he's been demoted to third string. In addition, Archuleta is the quiet type -- like Taylor -- and the two haven't been able to bond as Taylor and Clark did.
"Ryan Clark was one of those guys who could communicate with him, and kind of put him where he needed to be and tell him what's coming," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "I think he misses that, the communication part of it. He misses Ryan Clark. The team misses Ryan Clark."
Daniels also said the NFL's crackdown on taunting has sapped Taylor's moxie.
"He's not a guy that's going to be loud or talkative -- unless somebody's in his face," Daniels said. "They took that away from him this year. Getting in people's face, that was his game."
Other players say Taylor has been dragged down by the overall play of the Redskins (3-7), whose defense has fallen from ninth in the league last year to 30th going into Sunday's game against Carolina.
"Everybody's struggling on the team, not just Sean," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "A lot of guys are not playing the same way they did last year, you can see it in the results."
Cornerback Shawn Springs said Taylor, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2004 draft, "is still learning the game of football." But one thing that Springs doesn't buy is that Taylor can't play without Clark by his side.
"That would be too easy to use that as an excuse," Springs said. "Because at some point, he's the fifth pick, he's got to be able to do it all. The fifth pick, you've got to be smart, you've got to be athletic, you've got to be able to hit, you've to be able to cover."
While his teammates are confident Taylor will recover from his off year, the coaches can't bring themselves to say that Taylor is struggling at all. Assistant coach Gregg Williams said Taylor is "doing fine," while coach Joe Gibbs went even further.
"Sean's been in there every play, and we think he's playing at a high level," Gibbs said. "When you're not doing well as a team, it reflects on everybody. He's one-11th of what's going on over there."
The positive news on Taylor this season is that he's had no off-field issues. A litany of problems culminated with a no contest plea to two misdemeanors in the offseason, contributing to constant scrutiny that caused Taylor to stop talking to the media.
These days, the biggest story in Taylor's personal life is his baby daughter, who was born in the offseason. Although he is not playing as well, he seems to be smiling more as he walks the halls of Redskins Park.
"I'm just happy that he's changed. He's got a family," Daniels said. "Anything on the field, he can correct. I'm just satisfied with him being a better guy that way."<
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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