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Taylor’s talent trumps baggage

- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

You know what is going to happen today.

Sean Taylor is going to be the deciding factor -- the star -- in the Washington Redskins' win against the Seattle Seahawks, sending Joe Gibbs and the Redskins to the NFC title game.

He is going to knock the ball loose for the game-winning fumble. Or recover a fumble and run it in for the game-winning score, as he did in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday. Maybe it will be an interception. But you know it is coming.

Taylor fits the profile -- the star athlete under fire off the field. He has been vilified and ridiculed for spitting in the face of Michael Pittman and getting ejected from last week's 17-10 victory over Tampa Bay. Then, he compounded his problems by lying, based on video evidence, when he denied the act.

And while all this was going on, he was awaiting trial next week on a charge of aggravated assault with a firearm in connection with the reported theft of his two all-terrain vehicles (he received a postponement this week until after the season is over).

He has had those charges hanging over him all season. Yet Taylor led the Redskins' secondary in tackles with 70 during the regular season. He had two interceptions, recovered a fumble and deflected 10 passes. And he came out of nowhere Saturday to scoop up the ball and run 51 yards for a touchdown after Marcus Washington fumbled. When Washington first got the ball, Taylor didn't appear to be within 20 yards of him. But there he was, picking the ball up and racing to the end zone.

Not long after, he was out of the game for spitting in Pittman's face.

The league opted not to suspend him, instead fining him $17,000 -- just the cost of doing business for Taylor. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, of course, was elated his star safety wasn't suspended.

"We can't afford to lose somebody like that," he said. "Sean is so valuable to us. We had a long talk with him afterwards. He understands that. He is all football. He wants to play. He is one of our leaders. He had an outstanding year."

Like another great coach, Joe Lapchick, once said: "The coach who thinks he is more important than his talent is an idiot."

Gibbs is no idiot.

Athletes like Taylor -- the combination of enormous talent and arrogance -- are not only able to block out the other pressures that might weigh on an average, normal person but often rise to excel in that atmosphere.

I had a front-row seat for the biggest loogie ever let loose in sports -- the September night in Toronto in 1996 when Roberto Alomar spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck. I watched as that controversy unfolded -- daily news reports, umpires threatening to boycott the American League Division Series against the Indians if Alomar was allowed to play and the barrage of abuse he received from the sold-out crowds at Jacobs Field in Cleveland.

So what did Alomar do? In the fourth and deciding game of the series in Cleveland and the Orioles down 3-2, Alomar drove in the tying run with a single in the ninth inning. Then, with the score tied at 3-3 in the 12th inning, Alomar drove a solo home run over the center-field wall, putting Baltimore in the ALCS against the Yankees.

Alomar may have been the most talented player I ever covered on a regular basis. He also had that armor of arrogance that often accompanies talent -- that the rules don't apply to them, and neither do the consequences that come with breaking the rules.

Attend a meeting for rookies to learn about life in the NFL? Not Taylor. He already learned the lesson that talented athletes learn as young kids -- that as long as he delivered on the field, there was nothing any orientation was going to teach him. Fine him for illegal hits and unsportsmanlike conduct? Heck, that's what the Redskins are paying him for.

So I fully expect that Sean Taylor will be playing at the top of his game today in Seattle, which I also fully expect to result in the sort of intimidation that keeps wide receivers awake at night -- especially a group of Seahawks receivers who have had a reputation for being intimidated. And they're not staying up nights worried about Taylor's saliva. They are worried about those Ronnie Lott-like hits that the safety delivers.

It is those hits -- and that talent -- that not only allows a player like Taylor to block out the distractions but also intoxicate those around him who benefit from his talent. It can make good men rationalize bad acts, as we have seen this past week from Redskins Park.

If Taylor does deliver a win today, Redskin fans won't even bother to rationalize. They will celebrate the talent of Sean Taylor, which can make grown men weak in the knees and in their backbones.