INDIANAPOLIS – First, a disclaimer: Jim Irsay is a close friend with hyperbole.
That in mind, he still raised a few eyebrows during a visit to training camp in Westfield last month. The conversation bounced from contract extensions for general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich to foot surgeries for quarterback Carson Wentz and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson to whether it would be prudent to sign a veteran or stick with unproven Jacob Eason as the backup quarterback to, finally, Jonathan Taylor.
Irsay’s tone and demeanor hit a different level when his attention turned to the Indianapolis Colts’ second-year running back.
“I tell ya, he’s a special guy. He really is,’’ he said. “You don’t want to put too much on a young back and those sorts of things, but if he dreams about a gold jacket at night, he’s having the right dream because there’s reality there.
“You can’t put any limits on what he can do. He’s got it all. He’s got the power, he’s got the speed. He’s a special, special player and we knew that when we were picking him and he hasn’t disappointed us. And to say Offensive Player of the Year, those are the type of things you don’t shy away from.
“He’s got that sort of potential, but he’s got to go out and do it in his second year.’’
Irsay’s over-the-top comments aside, they were a byproduct of Taylor’s impactful rookie season and a clear indication of what the Colts envision in year 2.
Year 1 exceeded everyone’s expectations.
After a quiet start – normal rookie hesitancy led to not trusting his instincts or his offensive line – Taylor emerged as a weekly force. Over the final six games, he averaged 123.5 yards per game and 6.2 yards per attempt. His 741 yards during that stretch trailed only NFL rushing champ Derrick Henry’s 948.
By season’s end, Taylor had piled up 1,169 yards – 3rd in the league and the 3rd-most by a Colts rookie, behind Hall of Famers Edgerrin James (1,553 in ’99) and Marshall Faulk (1,282 in ’94) – and punctuated it with a franchise-record 253 yards in week 17 against Jacksonville. The latter is tied for the 9th-fattest total in NFL history and tied for the 2nd-most by a rookie.
Year 2 will offer similar, perhaps better, opportunities.
Taylor averaged 15.5 carries last season and was given at least 20 attempts four times. There’s every reason to believe Reich and first-year offensive coordinator Marcus Brady once again will lean heavily on their running attack, in part because that’s a strength of the team. Also factoring in is the early-season absence of T.Y. Hilton – he’ll miss at least the first three games after undergoing surgery to address a disc issue in his neck – and the team’s desire not to become too Carson Wentz-reliant.
It will test the creativity of Reich to maximize Taylor’s presence while also keeping Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack involved, but Taylor is the unquestioned focal point.
And no one should question the Colts’ commitment to Run the Damn Ball.
In Reich’s first year as head coach, he benefited from Andrew Luck’s presence and game-planned accordingly. Luck was named Comeback Player of the Year by passing for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns. Mack was a force on the ground with 908 yards, but the Colts ran only 38.1% of the time.
The last two seasons – first with Mack, then Taylor as the feature back – Indy has been decidedly more run-centric: 46.4% in 2019, the team’s highest rate since 2005 (46.5%), and 44.5% in ’20.
“We have like four RB1s. It’s kinda cool,’’ Hines said Monday. “With T.Y. out it puts a little more pressure on us, but it’s not any more pressure than we already put on ourselves. We always tell ourselves: ‘We go as the offense goes.’ We’re going to start and try to set the tone.
“It doesn’t matter what we do, who we play, we’re going to go out there and run the ball. We take that with pride.’’
And it all will start with Jonathan Taylor. Reich noticed a different player during training camp.
“Just the confidence, confidence and an attitude of taking that next step,’’ he said.
One particular play at camp caught the eye of Brady and reinforced the idea Taylor was ready to build on his meteoric finish to last season.
“One of the runs that he made today in practice,’’ he said, shaking his head. “Just his vision and the quickness of him just setting up blocks. But then how he is able to explode through the hole because he sees that vision of how the o-line is about to climb up to the next level and pick up that ‘backer.
“He just sees it that much quicker and you can just tell he’s playing faster.’’
The power also remains. Remember, while Taylor brings elite speed – his 4.39 in the 40 was the fastest by a running back at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine – he’s also 5’10” and 226 pounds.
On one play during joint work with the Carolina Panthers, Taylor burst through the right side of the line, headed upfield and initiated a collision with strong safety Sam Franklin. It was one of many aggressive runs/hits generated by Taylor.
“J.T. being J.T.,’’ Hines said with a smile. “He’s a tank. You can hit him all you want but he doesn’t go anywhere but forward.’’
The blend of speed and power, he added, “is a freaky thing. He has to thank his momma and daddy for that. He trains and works hard, but a lot of his God-given talent is just genetics.’’
Taylor can join elite company if he takes that expected step in year 2. Only three Colts have reached the 1,000-yard level in each of his first two seasons: James (1999-2000), Faulk (1994-95) and Joe Addai (2006-07).
Clearly, Taylor heads into 2021 with a target on his back.
“Just got to go out there and beat them,’’ he said. “They’re going to steam up for anybody on this team and you’ve got to go out there and work.
“It’s a good-on-good league, so you’ve just got to go out there and win.’’