- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2017

RICHMOND — Hit rewind and travel back to March, to a moment at the NFL owners’ meetings where Redskins coach Jay Gruden was asked how he planned to fill his team’s vacancy at nose tackle. At that time, Gruden placed his faith in new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.

“Coach Tomsula has assured me that he will find a nose guard,” Gruden said. “He’ll make a nose guard. If you look at his track record, you look at the nose guards he’s had, none of them have been priority first-round draft choices.”

With less than a month until the start of the regular season, the Redskins have honed in on Phil Taylor Sr. as their starting nose tackle. He’s taken the most reps there during training camp and was in when the starting defense played in its 3-4 alignment in the first preseason game. If Taylor remains the starter, Tomsula can no longer claim that he hasn’t needed first-round picks at that spot: Taylor was selected 21st overall by the Browns in the 2011 draft.

By the time Taylor signed a futures contract with the Redskins in January, though, he wasn’t the same player Cleveland chose. Taylor wasn’t even sure if he was a football player any more. He’d had multiple knee surgeries, hadn’t played football since 2014 and had been cut twice by the Browns and Denver Broncos. Taylor thought his body might have defeated him.

When Taylor took the field Thursday night it was his first time playing an NFL game in nearly three years.

“It was emotional,” Taylor said Saturday. “It was more surreal. Just doubting yourself in the beginning, talking about retirement, ‘I don’t know if I can come back,’ just pushing through. My wife, my kid, just helping me out with things. It was emotional to just finally be out there, see the crowd, come out of that tunnel again, it was awesome.”

At 6-foot-3 and 343 pounds, Taylor looks the part of a massive run-stuffer who can take on double-teams with sheer size. When he stands straight, he seems rooted into the ground. On Thursday in Baltimore, he showed mobility, too, snagging Ravens running back Terrance West, an old friend from Cleveland, by the legs to stuff him on what would have been a touchdown run (West did eventually score on the same drive).

Taylor, having spent the first four years of his career in the AFC North, knew several of the Ravens, who wished him well and congratulated him on his return after the game. Taylor also knew Gruden, a former Bengals offensive coordinator, from divisional battles.

“We had a little rivalry in Cincinnati,” Taylor said. “He didn’t like me too much but I didn’t like their O-line either. … It’s the AFC North. They call it the black-and-blue division.”

“He was tough to deal with, he really was,” Gruden said, remembering the problems Taylor caused for his Bengals offenses.

Last year, the Redskins had Taylor in for a workout. It went well, but Taylor’s knee still didn’t look healed. The Redskins passed, and Gruden assumed Taylor caught on somewhere else. That workout, though, was the only one Taylor had until the Redskins brought him back.

“I didn’t even know he was on the streets,” Gruden said. “His knee looked better. He was in good shape.”

Taylor was eager to come back to football, but he needed a little push. The call from the Redskins came less than a week after he’d described himself as “retired” for the first time. He’d started thinking about how to use his degree, or maybe going back to Ohio and finding a coaching job, and he wasn’t fully confident his body could handle an NFL workload again. Ultimately, it was Taylor’s wife who pushed him to sign the contract.

“She said get your [expletive] off the couch, put the [expletive] controller down and get to work,” Taylor said. “And what she says, goes, you know? Happy wife, happy life.”

It helped that Taylor grew up a Redskins fan in Clinton, Maryland and went to Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine. Mostly, the fact that Washington sought him out gave Taylor confidence.

“It was more just, they see something in me,” Taylor said. “They know I’m not done. In my mind I really wasn’t done but at the same time, that doubt was trying to set in. You can’t let doubt set in. So I mean, it was the home team, I grew up a Redskins fan. Why not? I was excited.”

Redskins coaches see it as a win-win. Taylor still has much of the talent that got him drafted in the first round to begin with, well worth the veteran minimum salary. He’s got more than two years of rust to shake off, but a healthy body and the dedication to keep it that way.

Earlier in his career, Taylor thought that if coaches saw him in the training room a lot, they would think he was injured. Now, he goes every day after practice and gets regular massages, cryotherapy and acupuncture treatments. Taylor keeps limber during the offseason by doing yoga on the beach by his house in Naples, Florida. He’s too big to do it on a towel, so he drags a comforter out on the sand.

Taylor has made more than $9 million over the course of his football career. Whatever he gets out of this second life on the field he considers a bonus, playing out his desire to “be on this field until they drag me off of it.”

Taylor says he feels as if he’s playing with nothing to lose, but he may have won himself a starting job come September. His comeback story is incomplete, but the fact that Taylor is eager to give it a shot has impressed coaches on its own. Taylor may have been a first-round pick, but he has the tenacity Tomsula is known for coveting in less coveted players.

“You just really enjoy being with him and his mindset and the way he’s going about this,” Tomsula said. “OK? You’re telling me Phil Taylor financially needs to play football? Don’t you love that? He doesn’t have to do that. He’s here for the right reasons.”

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