Fred Taylor began the season at a low point in his football career and in his life. He was emotionally hurting from an offseason in which he had to accept the reality of having lost almost all of his professional football earnings to his agent, Tank Black. If that wasn't bad enough, Taylor was injured and had to endure the barbs of fans and media who had labeled Taylor "Fragile Fred."
"At one point, I didn't think I had a friend in the world. I was on crutches, guys zooming past me. I felt bad. Sometimes you just feel left out," Taylor recalls.
He was left out for the first three games of the season, as he recovered from a preseason knee injury. Criticism of Taylor mounted, then, in a Monday Night Football loss in Tennessee, Taylor began a streak of 100-yard games that lasted until the regular-season finale. In the process, Taylor established himself as the dominant player in the Jaguars offense, rushing for a personal-best 1,399 yards that included a record-setting 234-yard effort in Pittsburgh.
The Jaguars' resurgence in the second half of the season was easily traced to Taylor, who became the team's workhorse, a new identity for the big-play back. As a result of his performance through the final 13 games of the 2000 season, Taylor is Jaguars Inside Report's Offensive Player of the Year.
"When I injured myself in the preseason, I was really upset. My goal was to play the whole season healthy," said Taylor, who had been sidelined for nearly half of the 1999 season with a nagging hamstring injury.
The year 2000 was the best of times and the worst of times for Taylor. He had unknowingly lost $3.3 million in investments by Black. He found himself meeting with attorneys during the offseason and, for the first time in his life, football had become a source of emotional pain.
"I won't get that back," he said of the money he lost, "but I have opportunity to sign again.
"At first, it was real hard for me to say 'no' to people. Even when they don't need it, they ask anyhow. Now, I know how to say 'no' and not even think about it. I watch every cent. I'm on a budget. I'm leaving the stock market stuff to my financial guy," Taylor said with a grin.
These days, Taylor is on the road to financial and emotional recovery. His career has taken a decided turn upward, the result of his performance in 2000. Now, he needs only to win over those critics who would agree Taylor is one of the best running backs in the league, but with this disclaimer: When he's healthy.
"That offends me a little bit. I don't want to hear that any more," Taylor said.
He has allied himself with agent Drew Rosenhaus, and the two are expected to seek a new contract with the Jaguars that would allow Taylor to recover the money he lost to Black. Taylor will seek a new deal that will pay him commensurate with his importance to the Jaguars and, clearly, he has become their most important player.
"The one thing that got to me was when my grandmother asked me if I wanted her to sell her house. That touched every spot in me. I cried like hell," said Taylor, who had been raised by his grandmother and had used a portion of his rookie signing bonus to buy his grandmother a house.
"Of course I want the ball. Coach knows that. Everybody knows that. Guys in the locker room say, 'If we get Fred going, we're unstoppable,' " Taylor said.
"It's a thing of respect. I understand it's a business. I just want to be respected. They know my value," he said of what he expects from the Jaguars in the way of a new contract.
Taylor currently has three years remaining on his rookie contract. Any move to negotiate a new deal would be a gesture of extreme fairness by the Jaguars, especially since the team is facing a critical salary cap problem that must be resolved before the start of next season.
But the Jaguars know Taylor is the player around whom this team's future will be built, and there's no denying his accomplishments this past season:
• Nine consecutive games over 100 yards rushing.
• Twelve touchdowns rushing and two touchdowns receiving.
• A 4.8 yards-per-carry rushing average.
• Thirty-six pass receptions for 240 yards.
Most importantly, in 2000 the Jaguars proved they could win consistently without throwing for huge chunks of yardage, and they could also win without Taylor reeling off long runs. This past season, Taylor proved he's also capable of being a 30-carries-a-game pounder.
"It does show people the durability they request of me, and the toughness," Taylor said. "I should be putting up numbers more than I am."
He remains committed to being the durable runner he hadn't been until this past season, when he played on a knee that never fully recovered, and with a painful wrist and sore ribs.
"People are going to see Fred 16 games straight and they're going to be saying, 'He's the best running back in football,' " Taylor promised.
Offensive Player of the Year