|Running back Fred Taylor, 33, is adjusting to having lost a step as he embarks on his first season with the Patriots. (Barry Chin/File/The Boston Globe)|
Taylor takes steps to not lose any
FOXBOROUGH - Fred Taylor laughs to himself. He smirks behind his facemask after sidestepping an opposing tackler or hitting a hole that wasn’t really there. He’s like a helmeted magician creating an optical illusion. The eyes tell you Taylor hasn’t lost a step; he knows otherwise.
“I’ve lost a step where I’ve had to adjust my running style,’’ said Taylor, 16th all-time in NFL rushing (11,271 yards). “I’ve adjusted my running style several times to account for the injuries that I’ve had.
“To the naked eye it seems that ‘he’s got it.’ In my mind, I’m like, ‘Only if they knew.’ That’s when I really smirk and I laugh inside.’’
Hopefully for the Patriots, Taylor, who is entering his 12th NFL season, is able to maintain the illusion this season. The 33-year-old running back, who was signed to a two-year, $5 million contract by New England, has said that he plans to “run until the wheels fall off.’’ History tells us that running backs at Taylor’s age can have the wheels come off in a hurry and without warning.
Of the top 75 rushers in NFL history, only three - Franco Harris, John Riggins, and John Henry Johnson - have enjoyed 1,000-yard seasons at age 33 or older. All three were power backs. Rare have been the backs who at 33 can top even the 800-yard barrier.
“In all honesty, you don’t see when [the end] is coming, and you don’t know when it’s there,’’ said Marshall Faulk, ninth all-time in NFL rushing and now an NFL Network analyst. “You look at the film, and a great indicator, as it was for me, was that guys that would never tackle me in certain situations were tackling me.’’
Faulk’s Hall of Fame-worthy career faded out at age 32, when he rushed for 292 yards.
A seven-time 1,000-yard rusher and the owner of a career 4.64-yard per-carry average, the 6-foot-1-inch, 228-pound Taylor is coming off the worst healthy season of his career.
With Jacksonville, his NFL home for 11 seasons, Taylor rushed for 556 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and scoring one touchdown in 13 games; he sat out the final three games with a torn ligament in his left thumb. Those were his worst numbers since 2001, when a groin injury limited him to two games and he had 116 yards and no touchdowns on 30 carries. In 2007, he rushed for 1,202 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry, making his first and only Pro Bowl.
In Taylor’s defense, the Jaguars had issues along the offensive line last season.
Taylor was slated to make $6 million for the Jaguars this season and offered to take a pay cut, but Jacksonville cut him loose. The Patriots are counting on him to provide the home run threat their backfield has lacked the last few seasons - Taylor has 326 career runs of 10 yards or more, tops among active rushers.
Perhaps to keep him fresh, the Patriots didn’t run Taylor much in the exhibition season. He played in two games and carried 14 times for 46 yards.
“Fred looks great,’’ said left guard Logan Mankins. “He has had a great career thus far. He still has got a lot left in the tank. He moves good.’’
In Taylor’s favor is that he won’t be asked to carry the load alone with the Patriots, and he always has run with a blend of quickness, power, speed, and open-field elusiveness that makes it tough to pigeonhole him as a certain type of back.
“I’ll change it up. I’ll show you. I’ll run a few guys over for you, you’ll see,’’ said Taylor.
There have been backs who have bucked the thirty-something trend.
At age 33, Marcus Allen, moving from the Raiders to the Chiefs, rushed for 764 yards and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 12. He rushed for 890 yards (4.3 yards per carry) at age 35 and 830 yards (4 yards per carry) at age 36. What’s worth noting is that in his final four seasons with the Raiders, Allen averaged only 94.5 carries per season.
The rugged Riggins enjoyed the two most productive seasons of his career after age 33. In 1983, when he was 34, Riggins rushed for 1,347 yards and set a then-NFL record with 24 TDs. The next year he rushed for 1,239 yards and 14 touchdowns. Johnson rushed for 1,141 yards at age 33 in 1962 and 1,048 yards at age 35 in 1964, averaging 4.5 yards per carry both seasons.
Last year, Warrick Dunn rushed for 786 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry at age 33. If the Patriots could get that type of production out of Taylor this season or the 812 yards they got out of a 32-year-old Corey Dillon in 2006, they should be happy.
Taylor has higher goals, like 1,000 yards.
“That’s an awesome group of backs that you named, and I definitely don’t want to disrespect them, but I feel like I can do it,’’ said Taylor.
In a bit of irony, it is Taylor’s litany of injuries earlier in his career that could help him extend it. He played in just two games in 2001 (groin), missed six games in 1999 with a hamstring injury, and sat out five games in 2005 with an ankle injury. In all, Taylor has missed 36 games because of injury or deactivation. That’s more than two full seasons of wear and tear he was spared.
“It’s hard to kind of gauge what Fred has left in the tank,’’ said Faulk. “Every rep counts, and when you don’t play in games or don’t take reps in practice, that’s more time on your career.’’
Taylor said his offseason training in Florida gives him the confidence that he still has enough left in his legs.
“I train with a lot of young guys, and for them to look at me the way I train and say, ‘You still got it, old man,’ it’s just intriguing for me to go out there and show them that I still have it,’’ said Taylor.
However, Taylor acknowledged, there is a certain “cut-off point,’’ when too many steps have been lost and no amount of guile can cover for them. But he doesn’t believe he is there yet.
“I mean, you know when [the wheels] are off, when it’s time,’’ said Taylor. “If you have to come to practice and take an Advil every day, that means it’s time. But I’ve been blessed with size and the ability to break tackles and make people miss . . . so we’ll see what happens.’’