This story was originally published in 2018. On what would have been Sean Taylor’s 37th birthday, we revisit his legacy.
Riddick, the Redskins’ director of pro personnel at the time, remembers that outing as the game where star safety Sean Taylor completely put it all together. It was profound considering Taylor, who was 24 at the time, was already damned good by then; he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2006, his third NFL season.
What Taylor did against the Packers that day — two interceptions, four passes defensed and one forced fumble — was downright scary. Long listed at an imposing 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Riddick says Taylor slimmed down to around 215 pounds, giving an already fast player, one with a well-established reputation for big hits, even more juice in coverage.
“He looked like f------ Lawrence Taylor at safety,” Riddick told Yahoo Sports. “He had all these highlight plays, and you’re like damn, this guy is about to be that guy!”
The man was a football unicorn who 11 years ago this week was fatally shot while defending his family in his South Florida home from burglars. Losing him at such a young age to a senseless act of violence more than a month after that Packers game was a tragedy that robbed his family of a father and son, and an entire generation of players from watching an All-Decade safety destined for the Hall of Fame.
“No question,” says Riddick, who was involved with the Redskins’ decision to take Taylor fifth overall in the 2004 draft. “He was just getting good.”
That’s just one of the reasons why, Riddick says, what happened to Taylor led to such an immense outpouring of love from not only Taylor’s teammates, but many football fans around America.
Taylor’s legacy remains intact. All it takes is asking around Miami, where Taylor grew up, and NFL locker rooms to verify that.
“Of all the young players now, especially the safeties, the guys who were in college around the time he passed and were coming into the league in high school at that time, that generation of player wanted to be like him,” said Riddick, a former NFL safety who is now an ESPN analyst. “These guys knew who Sean was. He was that guy that everybody tried to pattern their games after.”
New generation, same old-school love for Taylor
A quick visit to Taylor’s high school, Gulliver Prep, where Taylor’s daughter and little brother attend, reveals “Sean Taylor Memorial Field,” painted in bright white letters on the big blue scoreboard. Students can’t miss it.
“Oh, the kids know about him,” Gulliver football coach Earl Sims told Yahoo Sports. “They talk about him sometimes.”
Bills running back Frank Gore, a Miami native like Taylor and his last Miami Hurricane teammate still playing in the NFL, isn’t surprised by that.
“He means everything to the city, just because of the way he played the game,” Gore said. “He didn’t care about nobody on the field. That was old school.”
Gore, known for his high-effort style of play, likes to think he carries on Taylor’s legacy by playing as hard as Taylor did. But he’s hardly the only NFL player who does the same, as young safeties throughout the NFL regularly name-drop Taylor as a football idol.
Take the Redskins’ Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins, for example. After he declared for the draft in 2015, the 6-foot, 228-pounder went out of his way to tell anyone who’d listen that he idolized Taylor so much, he used to watch his highlights before every game he was about to play. Collins wears Taylor’s old No. 21 — and he has company in that regard.
“I used to watch his highlights before every game,” former. Chiefs safety Ron Parker told Yahoo Sports. “It gave me motivation to go out there and make plays.”
And when Collins’ former Alabama teammate, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, was dealt to the Redskins in late October, Clinton-Dix, 27, could not hide his giddiness at playing for the same team Taylor did.
“I love Sean Taylor,” Clinton-Dix said. “He’s one of the best to ever play this game … that’s somebody you want to admire, somebody you want to look up to and someone you want to feed off of. There’s no way I can be Sean Taylor, but he’s a guy that I look up to and I model my game after him.”
The same can be said for 24-year-old Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson III.
“I’m from D.C., so all I knew was Sean Taylor,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “He was just different. An exceptional athlete. I hate to see him go so soon. I think he might have been the best to ever do it at safety. He could run, hit, cover. He could do it all.”
Other stud safeties, including Jamal Adams of the New York Jets and former Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, have all mentioned Taylor as an inspiration in recent years. So has former Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who liked to tape his fingers up, Sean Taylor-style, as recently as a few years ago.
The way things should have been
To get a sense for the kind of player Taylor would have developed into, take the best qualities of those aforementioned safeties and put them in his freakish body.
Riddick says Taylor’s rare combination of size and athleticism would have made him an elite player in today’s pass-happy NFL, where cover skills are necessary for safeties to make an impact.
“His anticipation and range as a deep skill player would be highly sought after in today’s game because you need that, especially with the way teams are throwing the football in the middle of the field,” Riddick said. “He would have been a great interceptor, as he was turning into in 2007 before he passed. He would have excelled at all that.”
Riddick says Taylor would have also given whatever defense he was on a monster chess piece against the preponderance of fast, agile, receiving tight ends of today’s game, many of whom are getting flexed all over the field in hopes of getting one-on-one matchups with safeties.
“That would have been right up his alley,” Riddick says with a laugh. “He would have been someone who everyone would say ‘Hey, we need to get a guy who is big and tall and long and fast like that so they can deal with the Travis Kelces and Rob Gronkowskis.'”
The one area where Taylor would have needed to make an adjustment is with his trademark roughneck style. The man who blew up a punter in the Pro Bowl, drew criticism for spitting in an opponents’ face and never saw a knockout blow he didn’t like could have easily been a target for the NFL in today’s game, especially given the rules changes enacted to protect both quarterbacks and skill players.
Riddick thinks he would have adjusted – to a certain point.
“Knowing Sean, he would have done it,” Riddick says. “He would have gotten a few penalties, for sure. He would have gotten a few on purpose just because he was one of those people who, by his style of play, demanded respect. He knew how important respect was … and how far that went as far as a competitive advantage.
“So he still would have wanted to have that be a part of his game, but he would have had to temper it down.”
A tragedy still felt
Unfortunately, we’ll never know how Taylor’s career would have unfolded. Given his well-chronicled passion for the game, it’s hard to imagine Taylor — who would have been 35, among the oldest players in the league at his position — not doing what’s necessary to stay on the field and help his team.
Besides, according to those who knew him, Taylor had already showed signs of maturity before he died.
“He’d changed his life around, gone from being the hothead, stubborn, ornery youngster who had a kid, was slowing down, wanted his legacy to be one of the all-time greats,” Riddick says. “The lightbulb had come on, and everybody loved that kind of story, just from afar. But if you knew him … ”
Riddick pauses for a moment, and continues.
“ … you felt like he was your brother, your son. He was like, the ultimate redemption story. And you didn’t want anything from him; you just wanted him to complete the cycle and be one of the best of all time.
“And when that [death] happened, not only was it heartbreaking, but it was infuriating. I know people have never let it go, and they never will. I know I never will.”