Saturday, September 16, 2006

There’s no question Sean Taylor plays hard and often plays well. Taylor, the Washington Redskins’ third-year, hard-hitting Pro Bowl safety in the making, is always going full speed — from post-practice sprints to covering kickoffs to every defensive snap — and played the second half of last season on a bum ankle.

His helmet-rattling hits have produced plenty of oohs from crowds around the NFL.

But like every safety, Taylor walks the line between clean hits and those that officials perceive as unnecessary shots against defenseless players. The conundrum — which developed in 2004 and late in 2005 — flared up again in the Redskins’ season-opening loss to Minnesota on Monday.

Taylor was called for two 15-yard personal foul penalties — a late hit on Marcus Robinson and a face mask of Troy Williamson — in the fourth quarter, and the second led to the Vikings’ game-winning field goal. The first penalty was iffy at best and an egregious error at worst.

In only 33 career games (including playoffs), Taylor has been called for 10 personal fouls, which begs the question: Has Taylor become a target of the officials?

A teammate says yes.

“They’re going to be looking at him and it’s unfortunate because we thrive off that type of physical play from him,” veteran defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. “It’s a shame if they take that strength from his game.”

His coach says no.

“That would be something that shouldn’t be a part of the game,” Joe Gibbs said. “Everything should be judged on the standpoint of that game. It should be about what happens on the field. I hope it’s not the case.”

The NFL office says no.

Yesterday, the league announced it would not be fining Taylor for what the officiating crew perceived to be a helmet-to-helmet hit. In an e-mail, a league spokesperson said: “Officials are instructed not to consider the individual players involved in a play in any way. It’s irrelevant. The officials make instantaneous decisions. The action on the field happens so quickly, they don’t have time to consider a player’s reputation.”

Nobody debated Taylor’s face-mask penalty on Williamson. Replays showed that he clearly grabbed the player’s helmet. The penalty turned a 13-yard gain into a 25-yard play to the Redskins 24-yard line with 2:50 left in a 16-16 game. The Vikings kicked the deciding field goal five plays later.

“He’s a smart tackler,” assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. “Unfortunately, he had a couple of aggressive penalties that were technique errors. The face-mask penalty was unfortunate because if Carlos [Rogers] makes the tackle, we’re off the field.”

Six of Taylor’s personal foul calls in the NFL have led to points by the opponent.

The Redskins steadfastly disagreed with the first personal foul call, which came with 11:05 left. Taylor, running from left to right to help Rogers cover Robinson, appeared to hit Robinson with his shoulder, catapulting Robinson into the air. An official instantly threw the flag. The Vikings eventually punted, but the penalty was key for field position purposes. Had the penalty not been called, Minnesota would have faced a third-and-5 from its own 8-yard line.

“[Robinson] looked like he could have caught the ball and Sean was coming full speed and when the ball came out of his hands, I don’t think Sean saw that,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “He was going to knock the ball out of his hands by hitting him. I don’t think it should have been called.”

The Redskins sent a tape of the Taylor hit and a play on receiver Brandon Lloyd late in the fourth quarter — he was also defenseless near the sideline when he went up for a pass and was hit from behind by Vikings safety Greg Blue — as examples of what should and shouldn’t be called.

Safeties have accumulated fines for years in the NFL. Arizona’s Chuck Cecil was suspended for a helmet-to-helmet hit and New England’s Rodney Harrison and former Redskins safety Mark Carrier were fined extensively for illegal hits. Taylor has not been fined in his career for an illegal hit — he was docked $17,000 for his disqualification from last year’s playoff game at Tampa Bay for spitting at running back Michael Pittman. That officiating crew worked the Minnesota game.

Because they’re running often at full speed and occasionally hit players who are going for a catch and in a prone position, the collisions safeties produce are violent.

Despite the penalty problems, Williams said he won’t tell Taylor to ratchet down his physicality.

“I want him playing football,” Williams said. “All my life, I’ve been trying to speed players up and I’ve finally got one where I don’t have to worry about that. I’m not telling him to cut back on things. Playing pass defense is hard enough as it is because the rules of the game are designed for explosive plays and they want everything possible to go for the passing game.

“Part of playing pass defense is intimidation. When you have a player of Sean’s caliber, physical stature and ability, that becomes part of him playing defense. I’ll never ask him to slow down. Never.”

And his teammates don’t want him to downshift, either. Taylor’s hits can ignite a defensive three-and-out, shifting momentum and field position in the Redskins’ favor.

“The less physical you play, the less plays you’ll make,” defensive tackle Joe Salave’a said. “Sean’s M.O. since he got here has been one of a physical player. I wouldn’t change anything about the way he plays the game. I would encourage him to keep getting after it.”

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