With Taylor healthy, Jags on solid ground

Finally injury free, he has led team to 3-2 mark

October 19, 2002|By Bart Hubbuch | Bart Hubbuch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Fred Taylor listened to all the jokes, took in all the taunts, heard all the whispers.

The undercurrent was always the same: The Jacksonville Jaguars' talented running back simply wasn't tough enough or durable enough to reach his enormous potential.

Taylor was dubbed "Fragile Freddy" after sitting out the final 14 games of last season with a torn groin muscle, adding to the already lengthy amount of time he had missed due to a litany of injuries in his first four NFL seasons.

The very mention of the nickname pained Taylor almost as much as the latest injury itself. To say the past year was the longest of his professional life wouldn't be an understatement.

"It was like, `He can't even return from a simple groin [injury],' " Taylor said as the Jaguars (3-2) prepared to visit the Ravens (2-3) tomorrow. "It was a frustrating year, but I got through it with the help of teammates, friends and family."

Taylor also came away from that experience with a newfound determination to stay healthy for the first time in his pro career and prove the skeptics wrong. So far, Taylor is succeeding on both counts.

Much like the inexperienced Jaguars, Taylor is one of the big surprises of the young season. Not only is he seventh in the league in rushing with 446 yards and three touchdowns, but Taylor also has been one of Jacksonville's most durable players through five games.

That sound you hear is the Jaguars knocking on wood.

"From the time he came on the practice field last spring, I never had any question he would make it back," Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin said. "He's a huge part of our offense, and his game is on right now."

Just ask the New York Jets, who saw Taylor take a leaping grab 72 yards on the Jaguars' first play from scrimmage last month. It was just the start of a memorable afternoon for Taylor, who tormented the Jets with his trademark cutback moves on the way to 142 yards rushing and 237 yards overall.

Not surprisingly, Jacksonville won easily, 28-3, providing further fuel to the theory that, as Taylor goes, so go the Jaguars. They were 2-0 with Taylor last season, but 4-10 after he was lost for the year.

"It's just a matter of getting the ball in his hands enough times, because something good is eventually going to happen," Coughlin said. "That's what we believe in."

Getting Taylor to believe the same thing proved difficult this past offseason. His confidence was admittedly low after missing 24 of a possible 64 regular-season games due to injury, and Taylor even wondered if he still had a future with the Jaguars.

The normally taciturn Coughlin responded with an unexpected touch of sensitivity: He sent Taylor to a pair of therapists in an effort to clear his head of what Taylor described as "all the negative thoughts."

It obviously helps that Taylor appears to have lost none of his quickness or cutback ability despite tearing his groin muscle off the bone in a game against Tennessee in September 2001. But even to Taylor's surprise, the therapy sessions have worked. He has been an endless source of optimism and leadership in the Jaguars' young locker room, and that confidence is reflected in his play.

"Basically, it's been good, real good," Taylor said of the therapy. "I didn't think it was necessary. But it's not that type of psychiatrist. They're cool."

The Jaguars have the same appreciation for Taylor's running skills, which are the driving force of their offense. Taylor gives Jacksonville's attack balance and makes quarterback Mark Brunell's play-action passes even more effective.

Best of all, Taylor gives the Jaguars a legitimate breakaway threat on every play and a legitimate chance to win every Sunday.

"It's going real well for me now," Taylor said. "I've just got to keep it up."

And keep off the trainer's table, because the Jaguars' hopes depend on it.

Next for Ravens

Opponent:Jacksonville Jaguars

Site:Ravens Stadium

When:Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line:Ravens by 1 1/2

SunSpot:For more coverage, visit sunspot.net/ravens

Coming tomorrow:A special section in The Sun commemorating the life and career of John Unitas.

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