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Last year, he says, was unique. He missed 44 days of training camp while holding out for a new contract. (He wound up with a three-year, $4.5 million deal that made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL at the time.) He says he felt the effects of the lost practice time during the season. And the Giants' defensive scheme was different. He says he was locked into a set position more than he had been in the past. He couldn't pick his spots as he had done. "Can't really argue with the system," he says. "We had a great defense, and we won the Super Bowl playing that defense. Good for the Giants, bad for LT."
He says his goal in 1991—playing, he hopes, in a system that will allow him more leeway—is to recapture his status as No. 1 in the game. But you get the impression that he thinks that's almost too much to ask of a player who has been hammered by double- and triple-team blocking for 10 years, who has taken the field with injuries that would have put most other players on the reserve list. Says Taylor's close friend Beasley Reece, a former Giants safety, "The thing I remember best that he said to me is, 'It's tough being LT. People just don't know.' "
"One bad thing about playing on such a high level for so long is that you have no place to go but down," says Taylor, who has one sack after the first two weeks of the '91 season. "I've heard the rumors that I'm getting too old, that I can't play the way I used to, that I don't have the same burst that I used to. What player has the same burst at 32 that he had at 22?
"Put it this way. How many linebackers are there in football? Figure six per team, maybe more, so that's 170 or so linebackers, right? O.K., where would you rank me among those 170? Top 10? So if you're a coach, wouldn't you want one of the top 10 players out of 170?"
At one time, any questions about his mortality, of his decline, would have drawn a glare and snarl from LT. Now, though, it seems that Taylor is searching for some sort of focus on the decade he has spent in the Meadowlands of New Jersey, some kind of definition.
The close friends he made among the Giants—Reece, George Martin and Harry Carson—are gone. So is Bill Parcells, who had been with LT since the beginning, first as New York's defensive coordinator and then as the head man. Parcells shielded Taylor from the press when everything was falling apart, back in March 1986, after the story came out that Taylor was in drug rehab. During the '84 season, there was suspicion that he was drinking heavily, and possibly doing drugs. The next year players occasionally went to Parcells and told him of their concern for LT. Parcells said he would deal with it. And he tried to.
"Our relationship suffered," Taylor says. "I couldn't get too close. I didn't want him to see what I was getting into. Even though I knew he'd always be there for me, I kept him at arm's length."
The writers knew what was going on; some of them had been out drinking with LT during his first couple of years in the league. He'd been a fun guy, chatty, friendly. They liked him, and as he sank deeper into his personal turmoil, as he turned nasty and unpredictable, they began to fear him—the glare, the muttered "Get out of my face." But the story was never written. "The reason why nobody wrote it was that they didn't have any proof," Taylor says. "There's a thing called libel."
When the story broke that Taylor was in rehab, the Giants at first denied it and then confirmed it five weeks later. Since then, Taylor's relations with the press have been ambivalent—friendly one day, silent the next, depending on his mood.
"The reason why I got so ticked is that I'd decided on my own to get my problem corrected," he says. "I got into it on my own; I was going to take care of it on my own. For years I was the man around here, could do no wrong in the media's eyes. Then all of a sudden they're writing that LT's got a problem, so he snuck off by himself. It made mc look like a dog. It hampered my treatment.