The Jacksonville Jaguars' season ended in December, but one of their biggest stars, Fred Taylor, is still running.
Running from skepticism. Running from criticism. Running from a frustrating portion of his history that he has no intention of repeating.
Taylor is out to prove that he truly is one of the best running backs in the NFL. Not one of the best running backs "when healthy," but one of the best … period.
And it is Taylor's health -- or lack thereof -- that has fueled all of the skepticism and criticism directed his way in recent years, that prompted him to receive the nickname "Fragile Fred."
He took a major step toward shedding much of the doubt about his ability to make it through a whole season in 2002, when he played in all 16 games on the Jaguars' schedule for the first time in his five-year NFL career. He totaled 1,314 yards rushing and picked up another 408 yards on 49 receptions. He ended up attracting the sort of praise and admiration that he had received when he rushed for 1,200 or more yards in two of his first three seasons in the league.
Fred Taylor hopes to improve on his 1,722 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs in 2002.
The way Taylor performed it was as if the nightmare of his 2001 season, when he suffered a severe groin muscle tear in the second game and sat out the rest of the year, had never happened.
But it wasn't enough. For one thing, the Jaguars still finished with a disappointing 6-10 record. For another, they have a new coach in Jack Del Rio.
Taylor must put together another strong, injury-free season (or as close to it as an NFL player can get) in order to eliminate any lingering questions that he can stay in one piece.
True, the Jaguars made a resounding statement that they believe Taylor's durability has improved by giving him a four-year contract extension in March reportedly worth more than $30 million, including an $8 million signing bonus.
However, Taylor refuses to make any assumptions that he has satisfied the skeptics and critics. During offseason workouts earlier this month, he ran with a vengeance. Granted, they were non-contact sessions, which hardly gives a true indication of how a running back performs when defenders are actually tackling him. But he still ran extremely hard, still displayed a level of explosiveness that caught the attention of everyone around him. Del Rio even joked that Taylor had produced about 2,000 yards in four or five practices alone.
That's what Taylor is after -- recognition for what he can do when he is moving, not when he is healing.
"I want to be the most dangerous guy in NFL history," he told reporters. "I want to put the stamp of everybody's approval on what Fred Taylor can do."
He will do it by not only staying healthy, but also by raising the bar on his production, which isn't all that easy considering the kind of numbers he had last year.
One step he is taking to that end is to shed some weight so he can become even quicker and put less stress on his muscles and joints. Taylor weighed 235 pounds earlier this month and has been at about 230 for most of his career, but his goal is to be around 220-225. With the help of a Miami-based nutritionist, Taylor is following a diet that has proven beneficial to a couple of other running backs -- Ricky Williams of the Dolphins and Eddie George of Tennessee.
Another significant change should be an increase in the number of carries Taylor gets inside the opponent's 20-yard line. A year ago, Stacey Mack regularly replaced him in short-yardage and goal-line situations. But the Jags decided not to re-sign Mack, and he joined the Houston Texans. Now it will be up to Taylor to pick up the tough yards, as well as making his signature breakaway runs.
Either way, he will be running … just as he has been since the end of last season.