And here comes Jonathan Taylor!
The key to the Colts winning a Super Bowl? Simple. Ride their thoroughbred running back who smashed through the rookie wall to dominate the sport once again. Can Taylor now make this a photo finish?
Jonathan Taylor is in the groove and this, right here, is what that groove looks like.
There is zero hesitation, zero overthinking.
He takes a handoff out of the shotgun — something he rarely ever did in college — and veers left where pain awaits. Right there, is veteran linebacker Avery Williamson licking his chops. There’s no ifs, no ands, no buts about it. This collision is going to hurt all parties involved. And since this game against the Pittsburgh Steelers is all of 30 seconds old, Taylor figures he will be the one who sets the tone. He lowers his shoulder, the wincing Smack! of shoulder pads is audible over the television broadcast and Taylor totes the 250-pounder an extra three yards downfield.
He sets up his blocks and electric-slides untouched into the end zone, on third and goal that same drive, for a touchdown.
He jukes two Steelers cold in the hole with two rhythmic shoulder dips before storming upfield and blasting through Minkah Fitzpatrick to punctuate a seven-yard gain.
He scores again. Four Steelers all have a legit shot at stonewalling Taylor at the goal line and he runs through them all before then casually trotting on back to the sideline. Thinking the rook might want this pigskin for keepsakes, teammate Michael Pittman Jr. retrieves it for him.
His blitz pickup keys a third touchdown, a 42-yard heave to Zach Pascal.
And into the second half — with the Colts obviously on their way to a rout — Taylor, first, shimmies at the line of scrimmage to set up his blocks, then, rockets through the hole, then, wastes Fitzpatrick with a head-bob, then, carries two defenders on his back for an 18-yard gain that tees up a field goal and a 24-7 lead.
He’s feeling it. He’s turning this sport into pure philosophy once again, applying his How? and Why? critical thinking to every millisecond of every carry, the Steelers have no answer and…
… Taylor receives two carries the final 26 minutes of game time.
In related news, the Colts lose to the Steelers and, now, their 2020 playoff hopes are on life support.
The value of this 5-foot-10, 226-pound thoroughbred rookie has never been clearer to the Indianapolis Colts. They’ll need to beat lowly Jacksonville at 4:25 p.m. (EST) on Sunday, of course, but they’ll also need one of three things to happen in the 1 p.m. slot: the Ravens to lose to the Bengals or the Dolphins to lose to the Bills or the Browns to lose to the Steelers.
Extremely doable, of course.
If the Colts get in? You can bet they won’t screw this up again. Because in this conference, current MVPs and future MVPs are galloping down the home stretch. You better bring some star power to the dance. This Colts team is very good across the board — Chris Ballard may be the best general manager in football — but very good isn’t going to cut it when Patrick Mahomes is no-lookin’ fastballs at freak arm angles and Josh Allen is gunning 70-MPH missiles across his body and Lamar Jackson is posterizing DBs with a single juke and Derrick Henry turns games into SNL skits.
In Indy, Jonathan Taylor must put the cape on. Taylor busted out of the doghouse and smashed through the rookie wall and, at length, explained to Go Long how he pulled it off. Arguably no back in the NFL is hotter — Taylor has 488 rushing yards and six total scores his last five games.
Now, Taylor’s told, it’s all up to him.
The hopes and dreams of his ringless, 39-year-old quarterback. The emotional state of sneaky-rabid fans who’ve had their hearts broken far too often from Peyton Manning’s release to Andrew Luck’s retirement. He must be fed early and fed often every game. He is the Colts’ best chance at winning it all. The back who dominated in college and inexplicably fell to the 41st pick in the draft must dominate. Taylor’s plan? The “bigger” the game gets, the more that pressure builds, the “smaller” he’ll make his world.
Such is the message the Colts repeat in meetings often. He takes it to heart.
“Whenever you have a huge game coming out, just make your world small,” Taylor says. “Just focus in on the smallest of small details possible. Because when the game gets really big and you start trying to put the weight and the pressure of a big game (on your shoulders) — as well as the weight and the pressure of what your job and assignment is to do — the game is too big and the game is too fast and it will eat you up. So the bigger the game, the smaller your world. If you just lock in and say, ‘I know every single coaching point on this play and that’s how I’m going to execute,’ that’s how not only myself, but my team, takes the approach in those big games.”
The AFC hasn’t been this loaded in a long time.
But Jonathan Taylor — forgotten, written off much of this season — just might shock the world.
A new game
The season dragged on, his carries plummeted, he contracted Covid-19, he had every reason in the world to be pissed off.
Because he wasn’t in Madison anymore.
And remember Madison? How glorious that was. Taylor skipped his senior season and still finished sixth all-time nationally in rushing. He was fed 23 carries per game and, each Saturday, embarrassed Big Ten defenses with 6.7 yards per carry. The holes were wide. The crowd was electric. He eviscerated everything in his path with a blend of speed (4.39 in the 40) and power (he squats 500 pounds) you frankly do not see. All he’s known is utter domination. The man who studies video clips of Olympic sprinters and solves 500-piece jigsaw puzzles without using the box as a guide — as he detailed the first time we chatted — had a master plan to make running backs valuable again in the NFL.
Then, by November, he was rendered irrelevant. He was quarantined on the sideline.
His carries dwindled to rations, the leftover crust on a plate. Whispers of Taylor being yet another Badger bust got louder. And louder.
This was not complicated to Tom Rathman, the Colts’ unapologetic, hardnosed running backs coach. To him, Taylor simply was not ready for the pro game. He’s blunt: Taylor wasn’t playing physical enough. The NFL is “big-boy football,” he says, and Taylor lacked the prerequisite “pound” needed to succeed. The former 49ers bruiser coaches exactly like he played — like he didn’t give a damn about Taylor’s illustrious career at Wisconsin because, hey, nobody on the other side of the line of the scrimmage gave a damn.
We’ve seen this script before. Ex-Badgers Ron Dayne (the No. 1 all time leading rusher) and Montee Ball (No. 2 all time in touchdowns) faded from legends to obsolete in, roughly, the same amount of time it takes to polish off one serving of cheese curds.
We assume one encounters quite a bit “pound” in the Big Ten. That’s not necessarily the case.
“A lot of young kids come in here,” Rathman says, “and they haven’t been coached in the manner you’re used to coaching guys — playing physical football, running through arm tackles — and I think that’s one of the things he’s really done a nice job of, is playing a little bit more pound than he was earlier in the season and running through those arm tackles. We just need to continue to grow as a football player and understand what we need to do to create those extra yards after contact.
“You can run around and away from a lot of guys in college. I don’t know if that’s the case in the pro football world. He’s done a nice job developing. … It’s not all about being in space. You’re going to have tight quarters and you’ve got to make guys miss whether it’s being elusive and evading them or it’s running right through them.”
The complete lack of a normal offseason did not help.
Taylor thinks back to those eight hours of virtual meetings a day and admits it simply did not compensate for what he could’ve gotten in-person, in pads, in this Colts offense. Training camp felt like a haze of “catch-up.” And yet, Taylor says he fully expected to keep peaking, that he knew the NFL would be a learning experience all along and everyone — from Taylor to Rathman to Colts vet back Jordan Wilkins to Badgers back Garrett Groshek — stresses that Taylor was never down, never out. Where another Gen Z rookie banished to Rathman’s doghouse may stay there forever after getting only seven carries vs. Tennessee and six vs. Baltimore, Taylor accepted the reality that he wasn’t in Madison anymore.
The reality here, he explains, was that he wasn’t “the guy.” Nyheim Hines and Wilkins got hot, got the ball and there really wasn’t a thing he could say.
He was in a totally different offense behind a totally different line.
He couldn’t set linebackers up, play to play, like before.
He needed to appreciate every carry like never before.
“It really just shows you no matter when your number’s called,” Taylor says, “you have to execute at a high level. You don’t know when it’s going to arise. You don’t know when that opportunity is going to come.
“It wasn’t difficult. It was just understanding that this is the most important play because this is your opportunity right now. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m going to get this play and set this guy up and let him think I’m outside-happy or inside-happy,’ and then the next play you kind of fake him out with a head nod and take him inside or outside or vice versa. It’s ‘No, this is the play you’re supposed to run and you need to execute it at a high level. You need to make it work.’ That opened my eyes up as far as being in the NFL — when they say ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’ you never know when that opportunity is going to come and you never know when that play is going to come. But if you stay ready? You’re good to go.”
He learned just how important an NFL practice is, too. Lag for one millisecond then and that specific play can go haywire on gameday.
Getting Covid didn’t help matters. Taylor followed every possible protocol and still got it — “this virus is wild,” he says, “it’s not predictable” — but he was lucky his symptoms weren’t nearly as bad as what players like Lamar Jackson endured. He returned and he gave Rathman no choice but to leave him on the field. The other backs know how demanding their position coach can be — that no-BS, baritone voice becomes the soundtrack of your life here. Wilkins calls him “the oldest of old-school running backs” he’s been around, one who does everything in his power to pull every cell of toughness out of you.
Don’t even think of stepping out of bounds. Ever. Everyone here knows you better blast through that defensive back for one more inch.
“And obviously,” Wilkins says, “JT is 230 pounds running a 4.3-something. It’s scary for DBs to meet him in the hole or on the sideline.”
Everyone knew Taylor was special. He just seemed nervous.
As Wilkins puts, Taylor needed to slam that gas pedal.
So, before Indy’s showdown with the Packers, the other backs sat Taylor down and told him to stop trying to be perfect.
“Our running backs coach holds very high standards for us,” Wilkins says. “So as a rookie coming in, it can put a lot of pressure on you. You feel like you can’t make a mistake. I told him, ‘Don’t worry about that. Play your game. You obviously got here for a reason. You were one of the most dynamic college running backs there was — in history. Just trust what you do. You are who you are. You run the way you do. Don’t let anybody change that.’ At the beginning of the year — where he was struggling a little bit— you might have a two-way go and he’s like, ‘Ah, I’ve got to make the perfect read.’ Just hit it! You know? Your big frame and your athleticism is going to take over.”
Because that speed with that power? Wilkins doesn’t think there’s anyone in the NFL who compares. Even if it came at his expense, Wilkins needed to lend a hand.
Taylor describes this turning point as the perfect balance of listening to Rathman and finding himself again.
“You don’t want to be in an arrogant stance,” Taylor says, “where you’re like, ‘You can’t coach me up.’ You want to be in a spot where you’re like, ‘I know I have talent. I know I’m coachable. But I do know what got me here, so stay true to yourself but take those coaching points and add them in where you see fit, where you see ‘OK, that definitely does make sense.’ So, I think me being able to stay confident the week of that Green Bay game, it came to fruition on the field. I went on the field and knew, ‘OK, I know these looks. I know where I’m supposed to fit at.’ So, I can anticipate things but I’m also going to play confident because I watch film and know, ‘Hey, I can beat this guy to the edge. I can beat this guy with a stiff-arm.’”
He left the Packers in the dust and hasn’t looked back since.
Now, there’s Wilkins yelling, “Dude, you look like a totally different guy!”
Now, Taylor is 84 yards away from cracking 1,000 on the season. Many rookie backs of course have hit 1K only to disappear into oblivion, one-hit wonders like Anthony Thomas and Olandis Gary and Steve Slaton and Domanick Davis and Karim Abdul-Jabbar. Indeed, Taylor is tubthumping along himself yet Taylor knows he’s built to last because of how he thinks the game.
His college major was philosophy and this was no blow-off major, either.
The foundation of his great comeback? Critical thinking.
An average football play lasts four seconds and those four seconds can seem like a blur of brawn — and brawn only.
Up front, 300-pound behemoths smash into each other. In space, the best athletes on the planet with 4.3 speed and 45-inch verticals and hypnotizing footwork straight out of an Irish riverdance out-athlete each other. The running back position, it seems, is pure instinct. Jonathan Taylor needed to just Go! after all. But Taylor is the first to note just how much brains play into those precious four seconds. And, really, his world is more so condensed to 0.4 seconds every play.
Something that can appear plain as day — following a block — is a science.
So much work into making this a science again, too.
With the Badgers, Taylor’s offenses operated under center. Which meant lining up seven or eight yards from the line. With the Colts, the offense is primarily in shotgun. Which means being five yards away. A massive difference. Above all, the relationship between a running back and his offensive line is its own language. It got to the point in college where Taylor and center Tyler Biadasz didn’t need to say a word to each other. If the defense showed a specific look, Taylor knew precisely how Biadasz would block it. No Zoom meeting is going to simulate this. Taylor now knows how Colts center Ryan Kelly and every lineman is going to attack every look because they’ve talked about all scenarios for months.
They tell Taylor when it’s easier for them to wash a defender down or pin him to the outside.
Taylor tells them what he prefers.
The end result looks simple. It is not.
“It’s that communication,” Taylor says. “So when that look shows, you’re on the same page. Is he pinning him? Is he kicking him out? We’re all on the same page. Then, we’ll be able to execute the play to its highest potential. … Especially at this level, the guys on the other side of the ball are studying you and your offense. They know your fits when they see you do a specific footwork — they know where they have to fit at.”
Taylor knows that linebacker is dissecting his every move on film, and he’s ready.
This is the same kid who received a telescope as a gift in high school because he loves looking up into the stars and letting his mind wander. He wants to know what else is out there.
This is the same kid who visited the Harvard campus three times because he dreamt of becoming an astrophysicist. Both Harvard and Yale offered scholarships but Taylor was so good at football he couldn’t pass up the chance to play at a power conference. He even considered double-majoring in astronomy and physics at Wisconsin to pursue that dream, instead choosing philosophy because, hey, there’s only 24 hours in a day and, this way, he could still challenge his mind. Taylor found so much joy in studying how we know what we know as humans. He loved pushing his mind into “uncomfortable situations” and found himself staying up late at night in bed because his thoughts wouldn’t stop racing and why, yes, his favorite philosopher is the 18th-century German metaphysician Immanuel Kant who posited that space and time are “forms of intuition” and… and… if your brain is hurting by now, I promise, you are not alone.
Says Groshek, “If you talk to him, you can tell his brain is always working. He’s always thinking.”
Just know this: Taylor is constantly trying to learn the running back position from new angles, new perspectives, takes nothing at face value and that is what can separate him and this entire team apart right now on the verge of the postseason: His brain.
Twenty-two players have 22 different jobs those four seconds each play. Taylor is critically thinking through every detail again at top speed. He’ll still work a puzzle in occasionally but, for the most part, his entire day is devoted to mastering the NFL game.
Taylor is atypical and Taylor is back to those roots.
“It’s not like you’re just thinking of the big picture and you miss the small, little details,” Taylor says. “You’re really zoned in and focused 100 percent. Anything that could possibly happen, you’ve thought about it. You’ve went over that. You’ve pictured it in your mind. So, when that situation does arrive, you’re ready to go and you’ve seen it already in your mind. … I’ve always been a science guy. A thinker. A person who asks a lot of questions. That was something that always interests me and it’s definitely helped so far in my life.
“The more you study, when you see that look, you can anticipate two or three things that can happen. So it’s not reacting. You’re kind of just waiting for one of the looks to happen. You’re not reacting and you’re not a split-second late. You already know, ‘One of these two things could happen and I’m ready for it.’”
This is how Taylor constantly improves, Groshek adds. That “science background.” He remembers Taylor obsessing over every detail — “examining everything” — and applying it to the field.
Take pass protection, the reason many rookie backs cannot be trusted. Taylor says he’s always reading “left to right” and knows who’s blitzing from where — there’s never panic because he did the prep. Sure enough, Taylor somehow cut off the Steelers’ legendary “Cross Dog” blitz, tagging Vince Williams before the linebacker could smash Rivers on the Pascal touchdown.
As a runner? He knows he’s back to “anticipating” the nuanced “movements” of defensive linemen. Rewind that 62-yarder against the Raiders. Taylor turned a three-point game into a rout by perfectly reading a Kelly/Mark Glowinski double-team and sprinting past everyone else. Headhunter Johnathan Abram was no match for that speed honed in running track his final year of high school and, always, studying the sprinting mechanics of gold-medalists Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin. Now, there’s no need for Rathman to ever take him off the field. Taylor is essentially a boxer who goes 12 rounds on both intelligence and violence. He can out-think you. He can duck ‘n dodge and predict your next move in real time while, still, delivering his own haymakers.
No wonder Wilkins is OK taking a back seat. He believes Taylor absolutely can be the star the Colts need right now.
“He’s a bell-cow running back,” Wilkins says. “You can feed him pretty much as much as you want. He just seems to keep going and keep going. It’s a big difference from last year, playing with Marlon (Mack), which they’re both great running backs obviously. Very different styles. But Marlon, you know, he’d get a couple runs and go ‘OK, let me get a little break.’ But JT? He rides out the whole game. He’s that bell cow who can go the whole game which is very impressive. If we ever need him to get 30 carries a game, I’m sure he can do that with no struggle at all.
“It’s exciting to see. And he’s constantly growing week to week.”
Adds Groshek: “He did it for us at Wisconsin. He took us to that next level. He can be a difference-maker. The sky is the limit for JT. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
Not that Taylor is clamoring for 30 carries a game. Whereas he felt the need to light defenses up for 150 yards in college, he simply vows to do anything ever asked of him in Indianapolis. If the Colts ask him to block the middle linebacker “20 times in a row,” he says, he will. “Perfectly,” too. A bit extreme, of course, but that mentality is also how a guy who was rarely ever used as a receiver at Wisconsin catches 35 of the 37 passes thrown his way. That catch rate of 91.5 percent ranks first in the NFL and those two incompletions weren’t close to catchable. One one-hopper was the result of Rivers getting hit. One was tipped at the line.
Taylor feels the need to catch literally everything thrown to him.
“Everything,” he repeats, “that’s thrown to you.”
Taylor isn’t feeling the least bit of pressure right now to do anything extra.
He describes that as a variable that would skew his mental processes.
Says Taylor: “Sometimes, when you try to do more it ends up being less because you start doing half of your job and half of somebody else’s job. It’s all over the place. But if you just do your job to 100 percent execution and trust that everyone else around you — who is also the elite of the elite athletes — to do theirs then the play will work successfully.”
Commendable, sure, but there’s also one indisputable reality in Indianapolis: Taylor does need to do extra.
That is, if the Colts plan to win a Super Bowl.
The finish line
Philip Rivers is still talking trash. So much trash. No quarterback — maybe ever — has ever jawed with opponents this much.
At 39, he still has it.
He doesn’t swear — “he definitely doesn’t,” Taylor laughs — but the QB’s rhetoric is scathing nonetheless which, when you think about it, is goshdarnhootin’ impressive. Everything you see on TV? It’s even wilder up close.
“You want that out of a quarterback,” Taylor says. “That’s the guy leading your team. Seeing him get fired up like that gets not only you fired up but the rest of the team and you’re like, ‘We have 1-7’s back. That’s our guy.’”
That “fieriness” is why Taylor thinks Rivers has lasted so long.
Rivers gets so heated, so red in the face screaming at opponents that Taylor often wonders if the quarterback actually has real beefs out there. He even asked Rivers once, “Is this something from years ago?!” The QB only shrugged. “Nah,” he told him. “He just said something to me.” No doubt, Rivers is hungrier than ever. All of the intricate audibles he’s been making at the line of scrimmage blow Taylor away. So the rookie is convinced: Rivers is dying for that elusive Super Bowl ring.
“There’s nothing in his way,” Taylor says, “that can stop him from leading this team to where we want to be.”
Rivers will be in the Hall of Fame. Rivers is No. 5 on the all-time passing list and, after Sunday, he’ll likely pass Dan Marino to rank No. 5 all-time on the touchdown list. Yet whereas the four players above him — Tom Brady (30 career playoff wins), Peyton Manning (14), Brett Favre (13) and Drew Brees (eight) — all have won Super Bowls, Rivers has advanced to half as many conference titles games as Mark Sanchez. One. In 17 years. Hell, he’s made it to the postseason once in the last seven years. His trash-talking may be WWE-legendary. He may be hungry.
The Steelers collapse made it painfully clear, again, that Rivers is Rivers.
He’s still volatile as ever in the final moments of a game.
Even Rivers admitted that this could be his final game Sunday.
The Colts will not slay one MVP candidate after another this month if it runs through a quarterback who historically caves in January, a quarterback who appeared old and creaky in the fourth quarter last week in taking a bad sack on third down, fluttering a punt of a pick to Steelers’ corner Mike Hilton the next drive, then badly overthrowing Pascal on his final throw of the day.
Taylor is Indy’s best hope at staying neck and neck with Mahomes, with Allen, with Jackson.
Taylor needs to be that bell cow who doesn’t come off the field.
He’s ready — for anything.
“You can be as special as you want to be,” Taylor says, “as long as you’re willing and able to stay persistent. I know a lot of guys that come into the league and they think that they’ve arrived and they’ve made it. Then, eventually, the league comes around — coordinators come around — and know how to stop you. And then the guy ends up not having too much success and exits the league. The biggest thing is if you realize you’ve never arrived and continue to focus on your craft and continue to learn then you’ll continue to become a great player.”
Everyone who’s around Taylor stresses how strikingly humble he is. It took Wilkins aback. For someone who was constantly on SportsCenter, Taylor sure doesn’t carry himself that way. There’s no airs about him. He blends right in with everyone else. That’s why Wilkins drops everything to talk about Taylor even though his wife is due with their first child the day prior. That’s why Groshek responds mere hours after starring in the Badgers’ bowl win over Wake Forest and calls Taylor “one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet.” He insists Taylor is the type of person who treats the CEO and the janitor of a company exactly the same.
Such humility helped Taylor survive his November funk, when his own employer didn’t trust him. He looked in the mirror.
Says Groshek: “No matter what he achieves, he’s always going to be hyper-critical of himself. He’s a perfectionist. He’s never satisfied with what he’s done.”
Now, the ultra-humble, ultra-polite philosopher cannot merely blend in this postseason.
He is The Man. Again.
The good news? Taylor is winning over Rathman.
“He has outstanding speed,” Rathman says. “When he gets in the open, he can open it up. We’re just trying to get him to play big-boy football. That’s what the bottom line is: Playing big-boy football.
“I believe in him. We all do.”
The race isn’t over yet.