Taylor has strong support system

ASHBURN, Va. -- For crying out loud, the guy blew up Mike Anderson in the Redskins-Ravens scrimmage on Aug. 4.

You've probably seen the hit on SportsCenter. Keep in mind Mike Anderson's not a little cat. Dude's 230 pounds. Sean Taylor didn't want to talk about the collision afterward, but one local reporter managed to get him to open up about it. Taylor's description of the hit: "That's routine."

May be. But that's probably not what comes to mind when the average fan thinks of Sean Taylor.

You know how TNT basketball analyst Kenny Smith, borrowing from the famous Nas lyric, calls NBA superstar Vince Carter "Half-man, Half-amazin'?" Well, Redskins outside linebacker Marcus Washington has dubbed Taylor "Meast," as in, half-man, half-beast. Asked about his teammate in the secondary, the one who took him and not the intended receiver out in a practice Wednesday night, Skins cornerback Shawn Springs simply shakes his head and utters the word "animal." Taylor is even rough with teammates when the team is practicing in pads and shorts. Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Gregg Williams calls Taylor "a train wreck playing football."

Taylor's physical style of play coupled with his ability to cover some wide receivers man-to-man with his sub-4.4 speed, along with 43-inch vertical jump at 6-foot-2-inches and 232 pounds has secondary coach Jerry Gray comparing Taylor to Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and the late Eric Turner, the former Browns/Ravens and Raiders standout safety who was the second overall pick of the 1991 draft. This is the kind of athlete we're talking about here: In high school, Taylor rushed for a Florida state record 44 touchdowns -- in one season. Redskins coaches even gush about how effective -- and just as important, committed -- he is on kickoff coverage. Williams has been in the NFL for going on two decades and says Taylor is "the best football player I've ever coached -- by far."

Except most fans probably don't know how good a player Sean Taylor is.

Taylor is part Ed Reed, part Troy Polamalu, as or more physically gifted than any safety, or for that matter, any player in the league. First-year Redskins receiver Antwaan Randle El watched Polamalu grow from rookie to key figure in a championship defense. "They're one and the same," Randle El says. "Except Sean is like a giant running around out there." And he has that special feel for the game. "He has the instinct to play the game that the great ones are born with," Williams says. "He can figure out things in a game faster than any coach can coach him to."

Taylor was named a first alternate for the Pro Bowl following a rookie season in which he notched four interceptions. Last year he picked off half that many passes, but in a Week 17 win over Philadelphia that secured the first playoff berth in six years for the Redskins, Taylor amassed 11 tackles (nine solo), three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery he returned 39 yards for a touchdown. The following week in a wild-card win over Tampa Bay, Taylor returned another fumble recovery 51 yards for a touchdown.

Taylor is the kind of player for which offenses have to account. Simply put, the boy's bad.

"If he stays healthy and really learns to play within the defense," Williams says, "he can be the best that ever played the position."

Says Springs: "When he adds that aspect of being a pro and listening to the staff we have, he'll be unreal."

Clearly Taylor has everything. On top of it he has an edge, and because of it he often finds himself dangerously close to going over. Some of the stunts Taylor, ironically a criminology major in college and the son of the Florida City, Fla., police chief, has pulled in his brief career might also be described as "unreal." Someday Sean Taylor just might be to safety what Lawrence Taylor was to outside linebacker. Unfortunately when it comes to trouble, the budding star and the legend already have more in common than a surname.

Sean Taylor was born April Fool's Day, 1983, and since the Redskins picked him fifth overall in the 2004 draft out of Miami (Fla.) he's acted rather accordingly on and off the field.

For all his wondrous gifts, potential and all that he means to one of the best defenses in football the past two seasons -- "We're a different team with him," quarterback Mark Brunell has said -- Taylor has been associated with bad news. It seems he's either being sanctioned, sentenced, sued or suspended.

He blew off the league's mandatory rookie symposium, an act for which he was fined $25,000. Perhaps even worse was Taylor's refusal to accept/return legendary head coach Joe Gibbs' calls when Taylor boycotted the team's offseason program last year. The Redskins suspended him for a game his rookie season after an arrest for driving under the influence (he was later acquitted).

He's reportedly been fined seven times for on-field infractions, including $17,500 for acts of unnecessary roughness. The nation saw the best and worst of Taylor in that Tampa Bay game last postseason. Following the aforementioned touchdown, Taylor spit in the face of Bucs running back Michael Pittman, earning an immediate ejection and a fine from the league of $17,000.

The Redskins don't mind that stuff as much. Defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Greg Blache calls Taylor a throwback, "Dick Butkus playing safety." "He plays how we want him to play," Williams says. "I'd like a lot more people playing with that kind of tough attitude. Now he has to understand that he can't go too far and hurt the team. I think he's come to realize that he can't handle situations that way. I hope he says that. Behind the scenes he has."

"If he stays healthy and really learns to play within the defense, he can be the best that ever played the position."
Gregg Williams, Redskins defensive coordinator

As is often the case with athletes who compete with such great passion and intensity, what makes them great in the arena can be problem in society. Taylor, 23, nearly threw away his career and his life last year when he allegedly took his bully act too far in the real world. In June 2005, he was arrested and charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault with a firearm and a misdemeanor count of simple battery for allegedly brandishing a gun and assaulting a man who Taylor believed stole two vehicles from him. If convicted, he could have faced up to 46 years in prison. After seven trial postponements, Taylor reached a plea agreement: He pleaded no contest to simple misdemeanor assault and battery counts and received 18 months probation. He also was ordered to speak to 10 Miami-area schools and donate $1,000 to each. (The man is suing Taylor, accusing Taylor of striking him.)

Earlier this week, the league announced it had fined Taylor four game checks based on his 2005 salary, a penalty of roughly $72,000.

Said Taylor during the team's June minicamp following his plea bargain, "The other stuff [his legal troubles] has kind of been like a gray cloud over my head, but now I can see a little bit of light."

Who is Sean Taylor? Is he the thug we see on the field and read about in the police blotter? Or is he the "nicest, most humble, considerate, respectful guys in this locker room -- seriously" as teammate Jimmy Farris says. Farris adds, "I can't think of one negative thing to say about him. It sounds funny to say, but he's a guy you feel secure when you're around him. If it goes down, he's got you." These days, Taylor refuses to speak on his behalf, preferring instead to focus on football, according to the team's media relations staff. Apparently wary of further inquiry regarding his off-field issues, Taylor declined to be interviewed for this story, refusing to so much as look the reporter in the eyes. That, we are told, also is routine. And so are scenes such as this: Taylor patiently signing autograph after autograph after a long practice, not merely tolerating but engaging fans, especially the younger ones, greeting each with a warm smile.

The Redskins, Williams in particular, defend Taylor's reputation better than he does the deep middle. They know Dr. Jekyll, and they love him and support him. The Redskins all praise his worth ethic and his commitment to and love for the game. They say he's actually quiet and a good kid. "I trust him," Blache says.

"Sean's something of a misunderstood person and player," Williams says. "They don't know how good a person and teammate he is behind the scenes. The players love him and the staff enjoys every aspect of him as a person and football player. I like the kid. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a teammate that doesn't like him."

"I see a whole different side," Randle El says. "Something happened to bring out that other guy, but it's not him."

Williams tried to explain Taylor's dismissive attitude. "His confidence sometimes is misunderstood for arrogance," Williams says. "But as you mature, you become more humble with your confidence. When you're young and you think you're invincible that can come across as arrogance and that sometimes can get you into trouble."

To a man they all have this manchild's back. "He's a helluva guy," Washington says. "If you knew him and hung around him every day, some of the off-field stuff, you'd be like, 'Say what? Sean did that?' It would be shocking. He's soft-spoken. Everything is 'Thank you.' He's got great manners.

"But if you're going down a dark alley and three guys are waiting for you, you'd definitely want him with you. When he's with you, he's with you.

"He's just a guy that's not going to take any stuff, especially on the football field."

Washington says that just the other day Taylor expressed how he'd come to realize how much others are counting on him, including a newborn daughter.

Perhaps this is the year that Taylor grows up and begins to put it all together. If nothing else, to get it together. If you're into predictions and you're looking for a breakout star on defense in 2006, maybe a good bet for defensive player of the year, you might want to start with Taylor. His mind is clear and free to concentrate on football now that personal troubles seem to be behind him. Nothing but infinite professional possibility lies ahead. That is, if Taylor wants to seize it.

"He knows," Williams says, "that he has to be a more disciplined person and player."

We'll see. Change, and perhaps people will come to know the Sean Taylor the Redskins are talking about. A stranger to the rest of us

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.