- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

The rain was coming down in sheets Thursday afternoon. Washington Redskins players had long since soaked through their uniforms. Some might have deemed it a good day to take it easy at practice, to go through the motions and then head back inside and get warm.

Not safety Sean Taylor, who was zipping back and forth and diving around like a kid in the schoolyard.

Which, when you think about it, he pretty much is.

A week after getting arrested for DUI and being booted from team activities through Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Redskins’ youngest player spent a couple hours in his element. The rookie’s playful performance caught the eyes of several coaches and provided perhaps the best indication he won’t be unfocused or sulking when he returns to game action tomorrow at Detroit.

“He practiced unbelievable today, really,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “We’re out there on the AstroTurf, and he’s diving, sliding, flipping. I’m cringing. We don’t want him doing that kind of stuff. But he only knows one way to play.”

What a first year it has been for Taylor. It started with off-field controversies after Washington selected him fifth overall. Then he had a preseason for the ages. Then a slow start to the regular season. Then he seemed on the verge of breaking out — until he was pulled over on the Beltway in the wee hours of Oct.28.

Taylor, as expected, declined comment for this article, extending an on-again, off-again standoff with the media that began this summer. In a lot of ways, he’s an angry young man, convinced reporters and other outsiders are trying to bring him down.

But as Thursday’s practice showed, he’s also a 21-year-old who enjoys the simple pleasures of playing Slip ‘N Slide in full pads.

“He likes football,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “Some guys are out there, but … you know what I mean? Every now and then, you pick up somebody who probably doesn’t like it. They’re out there because they’re gifted and they make a lot of money and they think they should be playing. In his case, I think he likes it.”

Back when Taylor was enduring his offseason troubles — hiring and firing agents, skipping the NFL’s rookie symposium, missing a day of practice after a rookie prank gone awry — club officials said they weren’t worried because none of the incidents had anything to do with how Taylor might perform. The Redskins continued to say Taylor was one of the best-researched first picks in club history.

But last week’s DUI raises more serious questions, such as: Was Taylor’s arrest the one big incident that validates what all the little incidents seemed to indicate? Was picking Taylor the wrong move?

It’s not hard to do a fantasy football replay of the draft and see some attractive alternate scenarios for Washington. For example, the Redskins could have traded back a few spots, picked up a third-round pick, drafted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who went 11th to the Pittsburgh Steelers and now has a 104.7 rating) and traded Patrick Ramsey for another first-rounder.

But Gibbs, who reacted swiftly and strongly to Taylor’s DUI, yesterday said he has no regrets about selecting the University of Miami product.

“As a matter of fact, when he’s out there, the plays that he makes, it just shows that he’s what we thought we got,” Gibbs said. “He’s a rare combination, and that’s why everybody was so excited about him in the draft. Everybody wanted him. There were people trying to trade, by the way, into our spot or higher to go get him. We’ve just got to go through a process here and continue to play games and see how he does.”

Teammates expect the process to go smoothly tomorrow. Cornerback Fred Smoot said, “I ain’t seen him this focused in a long time,” and Smoot stood by that statement when told similar things were said after Taylor was demoted from the starting lineup for the season’s first two games.

“At practice, he feels good,” Smoot said. “In the game, he’s going to feel even better.”

Cornerback Shawn Springs went further, saying 60 minutes at Ford Field is precisely what Taylor needs to escape into the world he enjoys most.

“When NFL players get between the lines, that’s their comfort zone,” Springs said. “When people have distractions in their life, when they get on the field, that’s when they’re able to forget about everything and focus on football.”

In Springs’ opinion, Taylor has been somewhat misread during his short pro career. While people look at Taylor’s 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame and see a player who should be working toward the Hall of Fame, Springs believes Taylor is more the kid who loves throwing his body around during practice.

“Sean has a good heart, and he’s a good guy,” Springs said. “I think some of the decisions that he made, he thought it was the best thing to do at the time. He didn’t know better. He’s 21. I think sometimes people forget, because he’s the fifth pick and his presence — he looks like a grown man. They forget he’s young.”

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