Camp Tour: Jonathan Taylor is still peaking
We catch up again with the engine that makes these Indianapolis Colts go. The former Wisconsin Badger plans on only ascending in Year 3. Honestly, he doesn't need to look far for motivation.
Thank you for reading, everyone. Go Long has hit the open road for a mini training camp tour. While the No. 1 priority of this swing is to report on longform stories you can read later this month, we’ll be sure to post shorter camp dispatches like this one. After Tuesday’s practice, I caught up with Colts running back Jonathan Taylor.
WESTFIELD, Ind. — A loss this inconceivable sticks with you. No practice, no weightlifting session, no antibiotic at a team’s disposal makes this go away. Even with the page officially turned to the 2022 season here at Indianapolis Colts training camp, the eternally optimistic Jonathan Taylor cannot mask the foul taste in his mouth.
The math was simple as this on Jan. 9: Defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Colts were playoff-bound.
Instead, they were embarrassed by the worst team in the NFL.
Taylor has not forgotten.
“We all used that to maintain that level of focus in the offseason — ‘What more can I do to make sure we never feel that feeling again?’” Taylor says. “In a singular manner, what more can I do with my preparation to help the team get better to make sure we don’t feel that feeling again.
“A lot of people on the team used that in the offseason.”
No team in the NFL made as little sense last season as these Colts. Decimated by injuries, they limped to 3-5 and then did what Frank Reich teams tend to do. They clawed back into the playoff hunt. They won six of their next seven games and even that one loss was a thrilling shootout to the defending Super Bowl champions. No team capitalized on the sport’s magnificent shift back to ‘90s-like violence like this Taylor-powered operation. Indy pummeled the Buffalo Bills to a bloody pulp and rocked the New England Patriots with its own quarterback (Carson Wentz) completing all of five passes to quickly morph into the absolute last team anyone in the AFC wanted to face in the playoffs.
Then, they boarded a flight Jacksonville.
The feeling after that 26-11 loss? Taylor was sick. “Really sick,” he says.
“The hole we climbed out of at the beginning of the year, to fight back and get on a little roll and to have it end like that, you really get sick to your stomach because you knew it was a fight. You knew it was a long journey and you’re right on the cusp. What was that last missing piece? What did I miss in the offseason? What did I miss during the week of preparation? Did I do everything I could?”
These were the questions that the NFL’s reigning rushing champ asked himself all offseason.
The Colts had zero problem hitting reset at quarterback yet again.
Out is Wentz, in is the 37-year-old Matt Ryan. But there’s no debate: this is Jonathan Taylor’s team. The former Wisconsin Badger finished second in the AP Offensive Player of the Year voting with 2,171 total yards and 20 touchdowns, all at the ripe age of 22. Arguably no back since Le’Veon Bell at his peak in 2016 was so uniquely in-sync with an offensive line. Granted, it was a process. We chatted with Taylor at the tail end of his rookie season. He entered the doghouse, escaped the doghouse and has been dusting tacklers since. Taylor breaks his profession down to a science. The Philosophy major who could’ve attended Harvard or Yale has been interested in everything from astrophysics to solving 500-piece jigsaw puzzles… without even using a picture of the puzzle as a guide.
Of course, we’ve all seen running backs soar to astronomical heights only to abruptly crash back to earth due to injuries or defenses loading the box. It’s fair to wonder if Christian McCaffrey can recapture his magic. But if Jonathan Taylor is different, there’s no reason these Colts cannot legitimately contend for a Super Bowl. By no means does Ryan need to duplicate his 2016 MVP season. This team is built to win at the line of scrimmage with a core of star players on defense. They’ll simply need Taylor to keep on rolling downhill for 2,000 yards. Even through an August training camp practice it’s impossible to ignore how damn easy he makes this whole running back thing look.
His blend of vision, power and acceleration is unparalleled.
Taylor promises he has another gear in 2022.
“It’s understanding that no matter what you’ve accomplished,” Taylor says, “there’s still a lot more to learn. Understanding that you haven’t arrived yet allows you to continue to go day-in and day-out and have that high level of focus to understand there is room for improvement. You’re not the best in the world at this. You can still get better.”
One way he’s doing this is by tapping back into his emphasis on “mindfulness.” During college, Taylor worked often with the school’s Director of Meditation Training, Chad McGehee. He’s at it again now.
Mindfulness, he explains, is the ability to truly focus in on “a singular thought.” He achieves this through various breathing exercises.
“A lot of times your mind can run and wander,” Taylor says. “But being able to control your breath and center your mind, it really helps you complete certain tasks for the day. Being able to create a plan and just relax to say, ‘OK, I’ll focus on this task, and then I’ll move on to the next task.’ No matter how many we have in a row each day, it’s being able to stay focused on one at a time. The breathing exercises help you bring your thoughts back to the present — where you are right now, where your feet are. It can be tough sometimes. Even when you’re in the middle of those breaths trying to bring back your focus, your mind can wander and you have to remember to stay focused. Keep that level of focus.”
Taylor is a human being who genuinely speaks and listens and lives in the moment. Under control.
That’s how he runs the football, too. At his speed.
So, the 5-foot-10, 227-pounder is doing everything in his power to sharpen his greatest strength — that patience, that slowing the defense down to his speed on his terms. No doubt, the college kid who loved studying up on famous philosophers is still approaching his profession with a big-picture perspective. There are NFL years… then there’s Running Back years. He knows it’s hard to make a living touching the ball 372 times per season as he did in Year 2 but believes he can slay convention by always attacking each year as a completely “new year.”
“Everything resets,” Taylor says. “Nothing is the same as it was last year. So, what are you going to do this year? What are you going to do to get your body ready? You can’t ride off of last year’s wave. That’s not how this league works.”
No wonder the Jags loss is on his mind more than any of those 20 touchdowns. Taylor assures he was able to find flaws in his own game over the offseason.
He continued to work toward completing his Philosophy degree. He polished off another puzzle.
Back into football, he’s now hoping to become more of a vocal leader alongside vet Nyheim Hines.
“For a long time,” Taylor says, “I’ve been chasing a championship. So being able to do everything I can to help this team win a championship is not only something I want but a lot of people on this team want as well. Using that to fuel us in our offseason work — as well as that final game last season — is something we’ve been using a lot.”
The bitter aftertaste deep in his jowels may not dissipate until the Colts play another team. It may even take a playoff game.
But keeping that L fresh in his mind can be a good thing, too.
The Colts aren’t rebuilding. They’re looking to win right now.
It’s impossible to tell if Matt Ryan is an upgrade over Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz in August. Rivers missed the pivotal throw in a wild card loss to Buffalo in 2020 and Wentz collapsed at Jacksonville. Ryan even misfired on a few end-zone throws that eerily similar to Rivers’ miss during Tuesday’s practice. GM Chris Ballard knows his search for a long-term answer at QB continues but given his options this offseason — there weren’t many — this wasn’t a bad pivot. Sure beats selling your soul.
It’s been a while since I watched Ryan during training camp but even by QB1 standards, he’s extremely vocal. All practice, he was coaching up teammates. He gets animated, too. If a receiver makes a mistake, Ryan isn’t afraid to correct that mistake in the moment.
Coaches have been pitting cornerback Stephon Gilmore vs. rookie receiver Alec Pierce. The former defensive player of the year is obviously winning this battle but, much like the Bills matching rookie Kaiir Elam up with Stefon Diggs, this is only going to speed up the development of a rookie who’ll need to play immediately.
Who beyond Michael Pittman steps up at receiver? It’s early. But depth could be a minor concern.
Yannick Ngakoue was an active pass rusher on Tuesday, blowing up the first 11-on-11 play of the day. His first step may be the best in the business and why the Colts end up paying him a lot of money. Back at his “Leo” end position — with coordinator Gus Bradley — Ngakoue will have the green light to rip upfield. (What a road to Indy it’s been, icymi.)
As much as this team relies on Taylor, I’d wager the Colts try to spell him a tick more this season. Not too long ago, Phillip Lindsay rushed for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He showed some pop at practice. His services were a steal at $1.135 million this season. Hines always factors in, too.