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Taylor was just hitting stride

Redskins safety had rare combination of skills

Posted: Tuesday November 27, 2007 12:53PM; Updated: Wednesday November 28, 2007 2:36AM
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Sean Taylor was one of the most impactful safeties in the NFL and was in the midst of his best season.
Sean Taylor was one of the most impactful safeties in the NFL and was in the midst of his best season.
AP
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Conclusions regarding the circumstances surrounding Sean Taylor's death early Tuesday morning are still premature. We may try to connect the dots in order to make some sense of the senseless, but we don't know much.

This was what, another shocking home invasion that culminated in a shooting? Or was it a coordinated revenge-inspired attack by someone who once knew him on his road to the NFL? For now, there's nothing more than speculation devoid of fact, the part of us that always wants to fill in the blanks of a tragic story in an effort to make it more understandable.

But here's what we do know about the Redskins safety, who died early Tuesday at the age of 24: As a player, Taylor was starting to become even more of a force on the field. He made his first Pro Bowl last season, although his game still needed plenty of refinement. This year he was in the midst of his best season yet, tying for the NFC lead in interceptions (5), despite missing the past two games with a sprained knee.

Playing free safety alongside rookie Redskins strong safety LaRon Landry, Taylor was again punishing receivers and ball carriers who entered his work space, and displaying his uncanny knack for being around the football. He was an impact player who had grown as a professional, taking the game and his responsibility to his talents more seriously than ever before, while showing increased maturity in his personal life.

That renders Taylor's death all the more tragic. He seemed to be rising to the challenge of new fatherhood, and making better choices than those that sometimes haunted him in the past. In short, he was growing up, as a person and a football player, and his best days seemed just ahead of him.

It pales, of course, to the human tragedy, but his death is a bitter loss to the Redskins, who considered Taylor one of the cornerstones of their roster. He was drafted fifth overall in 2004, and coming out of the University of Miami he was considered a rare talent who many expected to emerge as the prototypical safety in today's NFL.

Taylor had a nose for the football on par with Baltimore's Ed Reed. He hit people every bit as fiercely as Indy's Bob Sanders, and he was seen as potentially pivotal to the overall success of Washington's defense as Troy Polamalu is to Pittsburgh's. Like many, I predicted great things for Taylor after watching him early in his rookie season, when he played like a heat-seeking missile who blew up ballcarriers on a routine basis.

This summer, upon visiting Redskins training camp, I wrote an item about Washington's plans to field an all-first round secondary this season. Taylor, Landry and cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers would comprise what was believed to be the first of its kind in NFL history. Taylor was the centerpiece of that unit, and the one who was considered most likely to achieve greatness.

For me, the highs and lows of Taylor's NFL career were best summed up in the only playoff game win he ever took part in, Washington's 17-10 first-round victory at Tampa Bay in early 2006. In the first quarter of that game, Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington forced and recovered a Carnell Williams fumble. But Washington himself fumbled during his return, and Taylor was in the right spot once more, scooping up the loose ball and galloping 51 yards to score his second career touchdown. The big play gave the Redskins their eventual game-winning margin, helping snap a playoff-win drought that had reached 13 years in Washington.

But in the third quarter of that same win over the Bucs, Taylor's immature side showed, when he was ejected after being caught spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman. The NFL fined him $17,000 for that episode, and it was far from the only time the league docked his pay for an infraction of one sort or another.

I wasn't around Taylor very often the past four seasons, but I saw him enough in the Redskins training camp setting to know that he was the most guarded of NFL players, mistrusting of all things dealing with the media.

Approaching him for an interview or even a casual conversation was considered an exercise in futility, and I was there in Ashburn, Va., this year when he was scheduled for a rare talk to the media one morning but begged off for reasons I don't really remember. That news was met with shrugged shoulders by the reporters who cover the Redskins. Just another example of "Taylor being Taylor.''

But as a player, Taylor was starting to let his performance on the field do the talking that truly mattered. His play resulted in him emerging as a team leader, and he was becoming a steadier, more consistent performer, with less of the volatility that plagued him in the past. There were still blown assignments to be sure, but the Redskins were beginning to know what they were going to get from Taylor week to week, and it was mostly good. More Pro Bowls and more playoff wins seemed a solid bet.

Suddenly that's all gone, and there's a huge void left in Washington's defensive lineup. The motive that led to Taylor's death is mostly still a mystery. But what we do know is that the Redskins have lost a person and a player who had started to become the difference maker many expected.

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