INDIANAPOLIS -- Jonathan Taylor took the handoff and did a split-second survey of the field. The Indianapolis Colts' All-Pro running back saw only a sea of white jerseys -- the ones donned by the New England Patriots.
There were eight of them in the tackle box, each defender focused squarely on Taylor. With the Colts protecting a 3-point lead with two minutes remaining, and with his only running lane occupied by two awaiting defenders, Taylor was left to improvise. He planted hard in one direction to make one tackler miss, then juked the other way to free him from the second.
The joystick moves produced a small sliver of space, just enough for the elusive Taylor to slip by the defense for a spectacular, game-sealing 67-yard touchdown in the Dec. 18, 2021, victory. For Taylor, it was the defining image from a career-defining season by a player who looked to be making his bid to be considered the best running back in the game.
“What he’s doing now,” Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard said afterward, “there’s no question that he is the [NFL] MVP.”
The only questions facing Taylor at that time were whether he could, in fact, win the NFL’s top honor or reach the holy grail of 2,000 rushing yards (he fell short on both counts).
But there is a much different set of questions facing Taylor today.
He’s coming off the most challenging football season of his life, one marred by an ankle injury that reduced him to a shell of himself, and a four-win season that took a mental toll.
Last season, Taylor said, “taught me I'm pretty, pretty, pretty tough mentally. You never want to go through a season and think, 'Why is this going on?' Not only individually, but collectively as a team.”
It was a season unlike any Taylor has endured. Before he finally was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 20, his ankle injury lingered and was an ever-present reality.
The inconsistency from his offensive line and quarterbacks meant that defenders in the Colts’ offensive backfield were also an ever-present reality.
The consequence? Taylor experienced a precipitous drop-off in his performance, one season after his record-setting 2021 effort. After averaging 106.5 yards per game in 2021, Taylor averaged 78.3 last season. He was limited to 11 games because of the injury, but he produced two 100-yard rushing performances after recording 10 the year before (the Colts are 13-1-1 when Taylor runs for 100 yards or more).
Taylor’s league-high 1,811 rushing yards in 2021 were a single-season franchise record, topping Hall of Famer Edgerrin James’ 1,709 yards in 2000. It was among the most remarkable individual efforts in franchise history, one that included an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns.
But now, a player who until last season had never missed a game due to injury in his high school, college or pro careers, must reestablish himself during a pivotal year for the Colts. They’ve got a first-year head coach in Shane Steichen and -- equally important -- a rookie quarterback in fourth overall draft pick Anthony Richardson.
Taylor has demonstrated he can be a stabilizing force for the Colts. But that can be true only if he returns to his old form and regains his rare explosiveness. He’s recovering from ankle surgery to address his injury and hasn’t been participating in recent offseason team practices.
The Colts can't rush this, but this much is clear: The stakes are high.
“I'm excited because it's 2023, so we have another opportunity,” Taylor said. “... You’ve got another opportunity to write another page in your book. So, what are you going to do? What's this chapter going to be?”
Taylor will have a lot to say about the Colts’ next chapter. While Steichen has said he wants to install an aggressive passing offense, there’s an understanding that Richardson’s dual-threat ability will be an asset to the team’s running game. The threat of the quarterback ripping off a big run should, theoretically, make Taylor more effective when he does get the ball.
The Colts have ranked among the top 10 in the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards and explosive runs since 2018, a reflection of the run-heavy scheme employed by former coach Frank Reich. It remains to be seen whether Steichen is equally committed to the run. But Taylor has established himself as big-play specialist, and increasing explosive plays is ultimately the goal for Steichen.
No player in the NFL had more runs of 10 yards or longer than Taylor in 2020 and 2021 -- the two seasons in which he was healthy. His 85 such runs during that period accounted for more 15.1% percent of his overall carries.
For Taylor, it has always been about quality over quantity.
“It could be less is more,” he said of his touches in 2023. “All I know is we're going to have to be efficient. No matter if we're running the ball a lot, you'd rather be efficient. If you're throwing the ball more, you better be efficient.”
There’s another subplot to note as Taylor continues his comeback. His setback last season was particularly ill-timed considering he’s in line for a contract extension this offseason. Taylor, a second-round pick in 2020, is due to hit free agency after the season. The Colts have discussed the idea of extending him early. And Taylor presumably has his eye on a new deal, too, if his decision to recently change agents is any indication (he is now represented by First Round Management, the same agency that represents Leonard).
Taylor insists it won’t be an issue if he enters the season without a new deal.
“It wouldn’t be a distraction to me,” he said. “I'm under contract here for four years. I put the pen to the paper. So, that's where I'm at right now. I made an obligation to them. They made an obligation to me. Things will happen naturally.”
But the reality is Taylor’s underperformance last season could make negotiations tricky. Running backs are no longer valued the way they once were, especially running backs coming off injuries.
Some context on the present standing of the position: Christian McCaffrey of the San Francisco 49ers is the highest-paid running back in the NFL with an average salary of more than $16 million per season. But by that metric he ranks 102nd leaguewide.
For another indicator of how difficult arriving at a fair deal for Taylor might be, just look at the New York Giants’ negotiations with Saquon Barkley. The former No. 2 overall draft pick was given the franchise tag this offseason and has been unable to reach a long-term deal despite his career-high 1,312 yards in 2022.
Will Taylor get his? Will he regain the form that put him among the elite players at his position?
For Taylor, the questions keep coming.