(Fred Taylor photo courtesy of Jacksonville Jaguars)
By Ron Borges
Playing in the wrong market and saddled with an undeserved reputation for fragility early in his career, former Jacksonville Jaguars’ running back Fred Taylor became arguably the most underrated running back of the last 20 years.
Is the time coming to right that wrong?
Taylor played 13 seasons in the NFL, although the last two were when he was well past his prime and more of an insurance policy for the New England Patriots. But during 11 seasons in Jacksonville, Taylor amassed 11,271 of his 11,695 rushing yards, averaging over 1,000 yards a season (1,024) and seven times exceeding that barrier. That has left him 16th on the all-time rushing list, only 379 yards behind Hall-of-Famer Thurman Thomas and just 551 behind 2015 Hall-of-Fame finalist Edgerrin James.
Yet for all his production, Taylor played his entire career in the shadow of others, in large part because he toiled in the league’s smallest market. Only once did Taylor make the Pro Bowl, and that was as an injury replacement in 2007 after rushing for 1,202 yards despite sitting out the season finale. At the time, Taylor ranked 19th on the all-time rushing list and was the only one of the top 50 all-time rushers never to have been voted to a Pro Bowl.
One of Taylor’s problems was that he was unfairly nicknamed “Fragile Fred’’ because he missed 24 games due to injury in his first four seasons. This was exacerbated by then-Jaguars’ coach Tom Coughlin listing Taylor as “questionable’’ every week in 2001 despite knowing he’d torn his groin muscle off the bone and was out for the season.
When taken together, that saddled Taylor with a label for fragility he could never shake despite missing only 12 games in his final seven seasons with the Jags — with one of those a coach’s decision to rest him prior to the playoffs. He also made 46 consecutive starts in 2002-2004, including while playing on a broken foot.
“Fragile Fred?’’ I think not.
After missing all but two games in 2001, Taylor came back the following year and for the next six seasons AVERAGED 1,207 yards rushing per year. Although his playoff appearances were limited, he was a highly productive post-season runner as well, rushing for 87.6 yards per appearance in seven post-season games with the Jags. That included three 100-plus yard performances.
At the time of Taylor’s retirement, then Jags’ general manager Gene Smith said, “He made the extraordinary look ordinary every Sunday in the NFL.’’
To put Fred Taylor’s career in perspective, if he had not missed basically the entire 2001 season and simply hit his career average, he would have retired with 12,295 rushing yards, which would be 10th all time, 17 yards behind his idol, Jim Brown.
Taylor was long seen as a positive locker-room force, as well as a powerful one on the field and is widely considered the most popular Jaguar in club history. It should not go unnoticed that he was also the A side of one of the most-lopsided trades in NFL history.
The Jaguars acquired the ninth pick in the 1998 draft from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for quarterback Rob Johnson. Jacksonville went on to draft Taylor while Johnson went on to make his biggest mark by wearing a wide headband under his helmet. Johnson started 29 NFL games and went 9-17 as a starter in Buffalo.
Do Fred Taylor’s rushing numbers make him the most underrated running back of his era? Indeed they do. Whether or not they should also make him a Hall of Famer is debatable. But it’s a debate that should soon be taken up in Canton.