JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On an off-tackle play during the initial team drill of training camp last week, running back Fred Taylor cut to his left, instinctively switched running gears as he wiggled through a fast-closing hole, and raced into a secondary full of unsuspecting Jaguars teammates.
OK, so it wasn't quite the sudden acceleration or the warp-speed burst that Taylor flashed so often during his previous eight seasons. And since Taylor was wearing a red jersey signifying "no contact" and continues to be the only non-quarterback here with that designation, he wasn't hit. But it was close enough to turning back the clock to surprise Taylor, who is still recovering from extensive Jan. 20 surgery to his left knee, even more so than all the flatfooted defenders who watched slack-jawed on the play.
And it was, Taylor recalled Friday after his latest lengthy session in the trainer's room, sufficient reinforcement to know that there are some productive seasons left in his career.
"It wasn't all back yet, but there was enough there for me to think, 'Hey, this isn't too bad,' and that was more than I expected at that point," said Taylor, who holds all of the most significant franchise rushing marks. "Even Coach [Jack] Del Rio yelled out to the defense, 'You guys thought he wasn't really running, huh?' I was encouraged. I mean, I am encouraged."
And for the Jaguars, whose roster includes no backup running backs who have ever rushed for as many as 500 yards in a season, and who struck out in their recent efforts to land former Bills running back Travis Henry as an insurance policy, the moment was encouraging, too.
This may be a team that now belongs to third-year quarterback Byron Leftwich, and a passing game installed by new coordinator Carl Smith that promises to dictate more to opposition defenses and to increase its number of vertical forays, but one thing remains unchanged with Jacksonville's offense: It will be only as good as Taylor's health and well-being permits because, truth is, the veteran is still the centerpiece.
"He's still the man around here," Leftwich said following a Thursday night practice in which the red-shirted Taylor was bumped and jostled but never tackled. "We need him on the field, man, no doubt about it."
While some doubts still linger about the availability of Taylor for the Jags' Sept. 11 opener against Seattle, while no one can guarantee that the 29-year-old Taylor will survive the season without another debilitating injury, there is more reason to believe now than there was a week ago that the Jaguars' most important piece to the offensive puzzle will be ready. Such is the effect of one otherwise innocuous off-tackle run on the first day of camp.
Such is the determination of a proud back who has come to know all too well, during a career interrupted by a series of serious injuries, the rehabilitation routine. If Jaguars fans ask themselves the what if question when it comes to Taylor, and ponder just how great a back he might have been without the injury hiatuses, well, they can get in line. It is, he acknowledged, a rhetorical question Taylor poses to himself a lot, too. But the question that most motivates him is, what if he doesn't push himself hard enough in his latest comeback? The answer is one that he knows but won't allow.
"Really, I refuse not to be a part of this," said Taylor, who began an interview session after having iced his knee for more than an hour, and ended it by heading to the trainer's room to chill for 60 minutes more. "When you're hurt, you're not part of it, no matter what people say to you. You feel distant and kind of unattached. And that's not a very good feeling. Not if you love this game. So, while I'm not going to rush things, I am going to do everything I can to get back."
Getting back, and quickly enough to satisfy the misguided critics who have hinted he is a malingerer in rehabilitation, has become one of this river city's favorite hot-button topics again.
The issue of Taylor's rehabilitative diligence was first raised in 2001, when he missed all but two games after a groin injury so severe that it ripped the adductor tendon off the bone. For whatever reason, then-coach Tom Coughlin kept publicly hinting that Taylor might be back at some point, and the organization never revealed the severity of the crippling injury.
This offseason, the story has been reprised, with the Jaguars not protesting when it was reported that Taylor's surgery in January, to repair a late-season knee injury that kept him out of the final two games, was an arthroscopic procedure. Amid whispers that Taylor would not be ready for camp and that he might miss the start of the season, where again it was suggested that he was delinquent in his rehabilitation. Or that he was simply soft.
Finally frustrated by the innuendo, Taylor revealed on a local radio show that the surgery was to repair two partially torn ligaments in his knee, and that the procedure was a lot more invasive than just an arthroscopic incision.
"I don't know why some of the stuff has been handled like it was," Taylor said. "Maybe I'm just the easy scapegoat or the easy story for the media, you know? But I understand the media is just doing [their] job. There are some things from the club where you read some of the things being said about when I'll be back, how much I'll work at camp, and think, 'Well, I didn't get that memo.' But at this point, to tell you the truth, I'm just ignoring all that. It's rolling off my back. My [focus] now is on getting ready to play."
Anyone who doubts the seriousness of his latest injury ought to get a close-up view of the six-inch scar that runs horizontally along Taylor's left knee. Anyone who doubts his diligence in rehab might want to consider this nugget: Taylor recently invested $15,000 of his own money to buy a special treatment machine that was recommended to him by Colts running back Edgerrin James, and he takes it everywhere with him.
"I call it 'my buddy' because it's always with me," Taylor said. "It's helped a lot, I think. I don't know that I'd be as far along without it and without the help of the trainers who are working with me. You know, when I was young and just getting by on naked talent, I was usually the last one to work and the first one out of here. Now I'm the first one here every day and the last one to leave. But that's what I have to do if I want to play. And I definitely want to play."
When he plays, Taylor is among the premier backs in the league, a complete runner with rare speed, capable of hitting the home-run play. Injuries and the size of the Jacksonville market, along with the fact the Jaguars haven't been to the playoffs since 1999, probably have kept him from receiving ample recognition. It's too bad that most fans don't fully comprehend just how splendid a back Taylor has been when physically whole.
In the first four seasons of his career, Taylor, the team's first-round pick in the '98 draft, literally missed 1½ seasons worth of games, 24 in all, because of injuries: one game his rookie year (shoulder injury); six in 1999 (severely strained hamstring); three in 2000 (knee sprain); and 12 in 2001 (groin injury). But in 2002 and '03, Taylor started every game and not until the knee injury kept him out of the final two last season did he miss a start.
When he doesn't miss time, Taylor makes defenders miss him, having rushed for 1,000 yards in every season in which he started double-digit games. His eight-year totals include 1,637 carries for 7,580 yards and 48 touchdowns. Taylor also has 225 receptions for 1,868 yards and seven scores. Among active runners, Taylor ranks fourth in terms of average rushing yards (88.1) per game. The only three backs with higher averages: Baltimore's Jamal Lewis (96.1), the Colts' James (95.3) and San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (93.6).
Taylor, who's fast approaching an age when running backs characteristically begin to lose some effectiveness, isn't sure yet when he will be back on the field. The goal for now is to try to be ready for the opening preseason game Aug. 13 against Miami, but that may be unrealistic. There is a chance he won't play until late in preseason, if at all, and he is feeling his way as his rehabilitation continues.
Recent history, though, indicates that Taylor gets off to a slow start in the season if his preseason work is curtailed. Over the past two preseasons, he had just 13 carries and then struggled in the first halves of the 2003 and '04 regular seasons.
In the opening halves of '03 and '04, Taylor averaged just 68.3 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry, and registered only two 100-yard performances. Over the second halves of those years, he averaged 121.6 yards and 5.1 yards per attempt, and posted 10 outings of 100 yards, including six of 140-plus yards.
Those numbers notwithstanding, Taylor isn't going to push things. Neither will the Jaguars, until he's fully recovered. That day, Taylor vowed, the day he pulls off the red practice shirt and is able to take a full-contact hit and deliver one in return, isn't as far off as people think.
"I'm not about to let these guys down," Taylor said. "I'm not about to let me down."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.