Fleming: Time to give Fred Taylor his due (2024)

Floating over turquoise water of the tropics, the hum of the airplane engines left Fred Taylor alone with his thoughts, leaning toward the window like a child, watching and waiting. When the lush, green island of Oahu finally appeared, after 10 years, 127 games and more than 10,000 rushing yards, the Jacksonville running back exhaled a bit, leaned back into his seat and shut his eyes. "I said a silent prayer to myself," recalls Taylor. "I said, 'God, it's been a long, long time and a hard, hard 10 years but we finally did it. We made it to the Pro Bowl. Thank you. Now, tell me, where do we go from here?'"

Fleming: Time to give Fred Taylor his due (1)

It took a while and a little more turbulence, but Sunday in Indianapolis, Taylor, 32, got his answer. Defy the odds, Freddie. Carry on. Pile up more yards. Anonymously climb the all-time list of the game's best backs until people are forced to pay attention.

Playing on the road, facing an almost insurmountable 0-3 start and running behind a Frankenstein line patched together with duct tape, lidocaine, body parts and near-dead careers, Taylor ran for 121 yards.

It was a vintage performance for one of the NFL's most underappreciated backs: 4.7 yards per carry, the 48th 100-yard game of his career and, working in tandem with MoJo Drew (107 yards) a mind-warping fourth quarter time of possession advantage of 13:21 to 1:39. "Their backs just played better than we did today," said Colts coach Tony Dungy. "They both ran for 100 yards. There's no way you're going to win on days like that."

For more than a decade, Taylor has been delivering performances just like this -- not that anybody has noticed. In a sports culture obsessed with stats, Taylor has somehow quietly climbed to 17th on the all-time rushing list with 10,903 yards. He's No. 2 among active players, behind Edgerrin James, and is 1,410 yards away from passing Jim Brown, arguably the greatest back ever and the guy who once called Taylor the best back in the league.

This summer, after Taylor made his first Pro Bowl appearance in place of injured starter Willie Parker, reporters in Jacksonville discovered that of the top 20 rushers in league history only Brown and fellow Hall of Famer Barry Sanders have both a better yards-per-carry and yards-per-game rushing average than Taylor's 4.7 ypc and 85.2 ypg.

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AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Jags coach Jack Del Rio should thanks his lucky stars for workhorse Fred Taylor.

Oh yeah, Taylor also finished 2007 ranked fifth all-time with 311 rushes of 10 yards or more. This was good enough to get him ranked on one statistician's recent all-time list as the 35th best back in league history, proving once again that the numbers never ever lie, unless sportswriters like me need them to.

"I'm gonna write a book about my career and call it: Roller Coaster," Taylor tells me when we meet before camp at Performance Systems, his training spot in Davie, Fla., where he competes with the toughest of the tough in NFL running back circles: Frank Gore, Marion Barber and Parker. "Last year was the most fun I have ever had in my career. Ever. It was so rewarding because of all that I've been through. The setbacks, the injuries, the negative comments people always make about me, like the Fragile Freddie stuff, I just take that all in and use it as motivation. All I can do now is smirk about it, because 10 years in, people still don't know the caliber of player I am."


Top Five Other 'Old' People Not Acting Their Age:

5.) Titans QB Kerry Collins, 35: So far he has posted the best passer rating (90.7) of his 14-year career.

4.) Diane Lane, 43: I was going to write something clever here but then I started thinking about her role in "Unfaithful" and somehow lost my train of thought.

3.) TIE: Arizona's Kurt Warner, 37, ranks second in the league with a 111.7 passer rating. New England's Rodney Harrison, 35, leads the league with 39 tackles.

2.) Miami offensive coordinator Dan Henning, 66: You wonder where the Dolphins came up with all those single-wing-like plays last week in New England? I think Henning might have run them as a college quarterback in the early 1960s.

1.) Ralph Wilson, 89: The Bills' owner celebrated his team's impressive 3-0 start by MC'ing Bruce Smith's induction into the Bills Wall of Fame.

They're working on it Fred. Honest. The problem is, from 1999 to 2001, Taylor missed 21 starts and the nickname Fragile Freddie just kinda stuck. Like Booger or Meat or Spaz, once a nickname sticks, it's yours for life. (Trust me on this one: last week, hand-on-heart, my PRIEST called me Flem during communion.) Never mind that in the last two seasons Taylor has only missed one game due to injury.

Ironic, isn't it, that in a sport where most backs hit the wall at 30 -- Franco Harris, Eddie George and Shaun Alexander to name a few -- the guy labeled 'fragile' is actually getting stronger with age, rushing for 2,348 yards since turning the dreaded three-oh.

"I know I've got another four or five years, at least," says Taylor. "The year I turned 30 I researched guys like Curtis Martin, Tiki Barber and Jerome Bettis and I copied their workouts. I said, 'Why not me?' I can do the same thing. I can be on their level. And if you ask me now, I feel like I'm better than those three guys were after the age of 30."


You know who else is all grown up? Flem File reader Conor, a Lions fan who's getting married this week. In the crazy, topsy-turvy world of the NFL, sometimes fans just need someone to talk to. So once a week on ESPN The Mag.com I'll be exchanging e-mails with one lucky (?) reader. This week I helped talk Conor off the ledge just days before his nuptials. If you'd like to participate in 'Dear Flem,' click here and pour out your pigskin heart. I'm listening.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Only Jim Brown and Barry Sanders have averaged both more yards per carry and yards per game over the course of their careers than Taylor.

In 2007, Taylor averaged 5.4 yards per carry, second only to some young dude named Adrian Peterson. After he cracked the 10K mark, Taylor was called "the heart and soul" of the Jaguars franchise by owner Wayne Weaver. That's quite a feat for a guy who almost quit school in the ninth grade, only to stick around because of football. See, there's a realness to Fred Taylor, an authenticity that is quickly becoming extinct in our pre-packaged, PR-approved, squeaky-clean HD sports culture.

Taylor is like the rest of us. He's not perfect. He's been injury prone. He's not shy about his rough childhood in Belle Glade, Fla., his affinity for guns or the fact his agent, Tank Black, nearly wiped him out financially before he was convicted in 2002 to five years in prison for swindling millions of dollars from the NFL players he represented.

But when you ask Taylor a question, you get an honest, straightforward answer. What a concept. Take, for example, this exchange about being a trendy early pick for the Super Bowl. "We learned that last year, as we started making strides, people came along and started saying, 'Hey, how 'bout those Jacksonville Jaguars,'" says Taylor. "But even back then we knew to just say, you know, f--- those people. We knew we could do it, but you're just now finding out?"

In September, when Taylor was cited by Miami police for disorderly conduct, he apologized, promised to learn from it and moved on. When the Jags needed a pregame talk in Indy, it was Taylor, the grizzled realist, who stood up in the team hotel Saturday night and laid it on the line as only he could. This was a "boulder" game, he told his teammates. Can't go over it. Can't go around it. Can't go under it. Gotta go right through it.

"It's all about surviving adversity; it really is," says Taylor. "The injuries, the setbacks, the problems, my childhood. Sometimes I just wish fans could get inside my brain and relive everything I've been through to get here. They'd be amazed. And they'd see how all this stuff -- it's not perfect or pretty -- but it has made me a better person and a better player."


I have to confess that the timing of this column about an old runner is not exactly a coincidence. The subject has been on my mind a lot, ever since I started training for a half-marathon. When I was a collegiate athlete, many, many moons ago, running was always used as punishment. (Late for practice? Run. Forget a form? Run. Miss curfew? Run. Didn't run fast enough? Run.) And that's exactly how the last 10 weeks have felt.

On my first training run -- honest to god -- I ran at night to avoid the heat and accidentally stepped on a frog. And I believe the spirit of that toad has tortured my every step since. (A friend of mine who is a former national-level long distance runner compared my gait to that of a "a constipated bear." Bastard.) Of course, what you realize after enough running is it's never about your legs or your lungs -- running is actually about the ability, or willingness, to endure discomfort for a greater good, something that drastically atrophies with every year we remain on this marble.

So I stayed with it, completed my training without anymore Kermicide, and Saturday ran all of the extremely hilly 13.1 miles of the Run for the Green in Davidson (N.C.) in just over two hours. Quite an accomplishment, I thought, until I realized I had placed 35th out of 37 in my age group, just ahead of a guy who ran backwards and a clown on stilts. I was so frustrated at that point I might have attacked another innocent frog. Lucky for all of us, then, that three days after the race, I still can't lift my feet more than two inches off the ground.

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Despite ranking No. 17 in career rushing yardage, Taylor has only been invited to one Pro Bowl.

One of the roughest parts of watching players age in the NFL is the cruel irony of how, right as they begin to figure out the game mentally, their bodies begin to betray them. Rather than pull a diva act, though, Taylor was smart enough to share carries with Drew and lessen the physical toll of being a single back. Together they have been the best rushing tandem in the NFL since 2006.

For NFL running backs, it turns out the fountain of youth is, literally, a figment of their imagination. The more Taylor's speed and explosiveness taper off, the harder he works to make up the difference by using his mind. "There are things that I could do physically back in the day that now I can't even think about trying," Taylor says. "But there are also things I can do with my experience where I can get the same thing done without relying on just pure talent. Older running backs can survive if they are willing to be honest with themselves and adjust their games. You have to become smarter as a back: learn to study defenses, learn to read safeties, learn about eight-man spacing, learn all the ins and outs about two gap versus one gap and know all the little cheat sheet parts of the game plan that can give you an advantage. For older backs, it's about getting faster mentally. It's about outthinking rather than outrunning to get what you want."

How so? I wondered.

"Kimbo Slice," he said a few minutes later.

Kimbo Slice?

"Yeah," Taylor answered, getting up from the table. "I want you to go to your boss and just tell them Fred Taylor said, 'Kimbo Slice.' How long have I been trying to get on your cover, and you put Kimbo Slice on there but not Fred Taylor? Come on, man."

Then Taylor pulled a move that could have been a metaphor for his entire career.

I stood there laughing and speechless, jotting down his final nugget of wisdom. But I wasn't paying close enough attention to him and he cut right around me, effortlessly.

Just like that, before I had even recognized what he had done, Taylor was halfway to the hall.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," which has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Wednesday during the NFL season.

Fleming: Time to give Fred Taylor his due (2024)
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