If the Jaguars are about to plunge themselves into a rebuilding phase, Fred Taylor will clearly by the centerpiece of that effort.
He is the Jaguars' star player. Six years ago, it was Mark Brunell and the passing game. Now it is Taylor and a running game that climbs weekly in the league rankings.
Taylor is on a six-game 100-yard streak that has the third-year running back brimming with enthusiasm. He has become not only the Jaguars' most productive play-maker, but is also showing signs of taking over team leadership.
In Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans, Taylor turned a short pass into a 10-yard touchdown. It was Brunell's 100th career touchdown pass, a fact to which Taylor became aware when he returned to the sideline.
Taylor had equipment manager Drew Hampton stow the ball. Then, in the postgame locker room, Taylor held it in his hands as he did interviews with the media, waiting for Brunell to emerge from the shower. When he did, Taylor tossed the ball to Brunell as a keepsake.
It was something no one had previously seen in Taylor. His athletic and football ability was clearly visible from the first moment of his first mini-camp, but his personality had always been subdued. Now, he is expressing himself in all ways.
He answers every question, and he doesn't back down from speaking his mind. "I've always said we were the better team. If they beat us five more times, I'll continue to say it," Taylor said of the Titans, who had used Taylor's words as bulletin-board material prior to the team's Oct. 16 meeting in Tennessee.
But as ecstatic as Taylor was about the win over the Titans, he wouldn't claim to have closed the book on what the Titans' AFC title game win cost the Jaguars last January. Beating the Titans in the regular season wasn't atonement.
"Never, never; we were 30 minutes away (from the Super Bowl). We let it go down the drain. Nothing can make up for that, except getting back to the Super Bowl," Taylor said.
In that AFC title game, Taylor wasn't used as effectively as he could have been. He rushed eight times for 73 yards and 9.1 yards per carry in the first half, but was largely phased out of the offense during the Titans' third-quarter barrage. He finished with just 19 carries for 110 yards and a 5.8 average.
These days, Taylor is playing a much bigger role in the Jaguars offense. He's carried the ball 54 times in the last two games, which is mostly the result of having impressed coach Tom Coughlin with a durability Taylor had previously lacked.
Coughlin, who has always professed to be a run-the-ball guy, is now more sold than ever on the merits of Taylor and the running game.
"If you run the ball, you're more physical, your defense is more physical," Coughlin said. "He's running the ball tough, he's running the ball hard. (Against the Titans), not a lot of long runs, but a lot of hard-nosed, inside runs."
Coughlin found a new kind of Fred Taylor in the Jaguars' win in Dallas on Oct. 29. In that game, Taylor carried 31 times for 107 yards and a 3.5 average. Those are not typical numbers for Taylor, who has largely been a limited-carries, long-runs and high-average runner. Against the Cowboys, Taylor became a pounder, and Coughlin found a new appreciation for Taylor.
That message wasn't lost on Taylor, who all of a sudden wants to shed his "cut-back runner" tag.
"I'm not a cut-back runner," Taylor said the week following his record-setting 234-yard performance in Pittsburgh. "I'm a take-whatever-you-give-me runner. I don't go out just looking for the cut-back. That's the label I'm getting. I don't like that. I can take it out the front door if you give me that look. I'm a pure runner. That sounds better," Taylor added.
Now he's Taylor the tough guy, after a start to the season that saw him miss the first three games with a knee injury that had fans referring to him as "Fragile Fred." Now, he's a guy who's averaged more than 26 carries a game in the last four games. He's productive and durable. He would seem to be the complete back.
He's also the player who gives the Jaguars a chance of being competitive during their rebuilding period.