He's never been more focused. Fred Taylor has put his distractions aside and has his mind trained on winning.
"First and foremost, I want to just have a winning season, but I want to get back to that AFC title game. I want everyone to have that feeling of team first," Taylor said as he sat in a long-sleeve, cotton Jaguars shirt that was dripping with sweat from a mid-day workout.
Taylor is the Jaguars' offensive star. Most would say he's the team's most valuable player, as witnessed by the degree to which the Jaguars relied on Taylor during his nine-game, 100-yard rushing streak last season.
In the midst of Taylor's streak, the Jaguars won four games in a row and five of six, including wins in Dallas and Pittsburgh and against visiting Tennessee. It was during that stretch of games the Jaguars became Taylor's unofficial property.
These days, as Taylor heads into his fourth season and the prime years of his career, the expectations for the Florida running back have become mind-boggling. Some expect him to rush for 2,000 yards. Others clamor for him to catch more passes, even though his 36 receptions a year ago were more than representative.
Jaguars fans want Taylor to possess the run-and-catch skills of Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James, the big-play ability of Barry Sanders, and the durability of Jerome Bettis. Meanwhile, Taylor talks only of winning.
"When I first got in the league, I wanted to see what I could do, but now it's all about winning. I just want to win, now. I can't stand losing. You can't get peace of mind losing. Everybody likes a winner. Nobody likes a loser," Taylor said.
Last year was a tribute to both extremes. When the season began with Taylor on the sideline with a knee injury for the first three games, he was taunted for being fragile. It was the lowest point of his football life, at a time when he was dealing with the emotional trauma of having lost all of his pro football earnings to agent Tank Black.
By season's end, Taylor was on a roll. He was setting records, ripping off big runs, and the football world was saying he might be the best running back in the game. All he needed was one full season to prove it.
Taylor wants to make 2001 that kind of year. He's pushed himself in offseason conditioning, disciplined his eating habits, re-structured his contract and put his financial setbacks into perspective.
"It makes me use it as a motivation … to get back the financial stability I would've had," he said of the Tank Black scandal. "Every once in awhile I think of what might've been, but I can't mope about it. For the most part, it's out of my system."
What is in Taylor's system is the thought of the upcoming season. "I know what's at stake. I know we need to turn this around and have a great season, and part of that is up to me," he said.
To that end, Taylor cleared away a potential major distraction when he agreed to a contract re-structuring this past winter. At the time, there was concern Taylor might be a training camp holdout, in protest to a contract he believes is unfair.
"I've outperformed my rookie deal, by far," Taylor said of a six-year contract he signed in 1998. "That's my opinion."
He re-structured that deal in late February, "to be a team player," he said. In the re-structuring, Taylor had salary converted to bonus money, which allows the Jaguars to amortize that amount over the final three years of Taylor's contract. No more years were added to Taylor's deal.
"We're not going to give up on (a new) contract," Taylor said of himself and agent Drew Rosenhaus, "but I'm not going to hold out. Holding out was never an issue."
Taylor knows the Jaguars are cap-strapped and unable to negotiate a new deal this year because they can't take on additional signing bonus money this season. "I'll be satisfied if they put some guarantees in there, say, like a roster bonus," he said.
Eventually, the Jaguars will have to do something to satisfy their star running back, especially if he has the kind of season that is expected of him this year. If that happens, he will only further entrench himself as the foundation of the Jaguars' future, and that may be his greatest motivation.
"Flat out, point blank, I'm ready. We can pad up tomorrow," he said.
He'll have to be ready because it's expected Taylor will have the ball handed to him and thrown to him as much as 50 percent of the Jaguars' offensive plays.
"I can take it," he said. "In the clutch, I want the ball every time. Only a coward would say he doesn't want the ball."
Clearly, Taylor is not backing down from the demands he'll face this season. He is physically and mentally prepared to begin training camp.
"I'll make sure my bread is to a minimum, no more fried food at all, and no more drinks. The party time is over," Taylor said.
Vic Ketchman is the Senior Editor of Jaguars Inside Report, the official team newspaper of the Jacksonville Jaguars. One-year subscriptions may be purchased by calling 1-888-846-5247.