Rested Taylor is eager to carry the load
FOXBOROUGH - After Oct. 4, the day his ankle rolled and he hobbled off the Gillette Stadium field, Fred Taylor sustained a jarring change to his daily life. Taylor had adhered to football’s routine for all of his adult life, until it became embedded in him. This year, he swapped that for ankle surgery, cooped up day after day in the trainer’s room. “How much can you ice?’’ he said.
With the tedium behind him, Taylor is grateful for having endured it. The Patriots could have placed him on injured reserve and ended his season. Instead, they kept him on the roster for the purpose he’ll serve this week.
Rested and ready, if not yet fully healthy, Taylor will provide a fresh spark to the running game Sunday when they face the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs. He allows that he may not be 100 percent physically. But in his mind, he is the same running back he was before Oct. 4, and only that matters to him.
“I have the same mind-set,’’ Taylor said. “I’m trying to get healthier. I never try and put a number on it, but I do feel good. I feel like it’s go time. It’s crunch time.
“I got a long time in the offseason. I have long enough to heal up, regardless of what happens. Right now, it’s all the marbles. This is what it’s all about. I’m ready to go.’’
The Patriots believe they will need enhanced contributions from across their offense to offset the loss of Wes Welker. They acquired Taylor, in part, so he could become a core piece in a stable of backs late in the year. In a roundabout way, that has happened.
At the time Taylor went down, he was the team’s leading rusher with 201 yards on 45 carries. He had been turning into a focal part of the offense, carrying the ball 21 times in Week 3 in a win over the Falcons. The next week, on his seventh carry, Taylor injured his ankle.
Taylor returned two weeks ago against the Jaguars, his former team, and had 11 carries in mop-up duty. He scored two touchdowns in a larger role Sunday against the Texans, gaining 33 yards on seven carries. His injury may have served as an indirect benefit. Rather than absorbing a season’s worth of tackles, Taylor has 18 carries since November.
“I’ve always been somewhat of a late starter,’’ Taylor said. “I usually heat up a little bit as the season goes. But to have been out those games, I might be a little fresher than most of the guys - mentally fresher more than anything else. I was doing everything else other than taking the pounding.’’
Coach Bill Belichick didn’t buy the idea that not playing for the heart of the season would necessarily be a benefit. (“I watched Chris Johnson last week,’’ he said. “He played every week, and it looked like he ran pretty good last week as he went over 2,000 yards.’’) But Taylor said he felt better mentally than he typically would.
“You can be physically beat down,’’ he said. “The season is so long. You can lose somewhat of your mental focus: ‘Man, when is this going to end? When is this going to get over?’ Right now, everyone should have a second wind. But for me, I haven’t played, so I’m excited more so than anything else. I’m mentally fresh.’’
Given their recent substitution pattern in the backfield, the Patriots may rely on Taylor Sunday. Laurence Maroney, who handled the bulk of the carries for most of the season, has not played since he fumbled at the goal line on the Patriots’ first possession against the Jaguars. And with snowy conditions expected, the Patriots may prefer the powerful styles of Taylor and Sammy Morris.
Taylor missed hanging around his teammates while he rehabbed, and though he is in the postseason as a Patriot for the first time, he is relishing his veteran role. On Sunday, as many as 20 Patriots will play their first playoff game.
In his locker, Taylor stored a T-shirt an unnamed teammate distributed that read, “Each One, Teach One. Teamwork is Contagious.’’
The message: Older players should guide young players in preparation.
“We have to put that into work this week,’’ Taylor said. “Grab a young guy.’’
Taylor has played in seven playoff games - three, incidentally, against the Patriots. He has rushed for an average of 87.4 yards per game in the postseason, including three 100-yard efforts, the last of which came in 2000. In his last playoff game, at Gillette Stadium in 2008, the Patriots held Taylor to 47 yards on 13 carries.
Taylor’s playoff history helps him appreciate his experience this year, another message he wants to give his younger teammates. The Jaguars made the playoffs in his first two seasons, and he assumed they always would.
“It was about a seven-year drought before we made it back to the playoffs,’’ Taylor said. “You think, ‘Man, this is a piece of cake. We’re going to do this every year.’
“You’re fooling yourself if you think that way. I try and share that with everybody, so they won’t have those regrets.’’