March 24, 2022
Jonathan Taylor was making the Super Bowl rounds. He was sitting on a stool with bright green sneakers, a big happy grin on his face with a headset on, wearing a gray NFL t-shirt, while on a remote Zoom conference interview.
Clips were being shown of a younger Jon Taylor, clad in blue and white, wearing No. 23 for the Salem High School Rams. There were six videos, each showing him score a touchdown through various ways and from various distances on the field, crossing over the Rams’ crest at midfield. Each time he scored, Taylor would sternly nod.
Though there was something else going on, too. Something underneath. Something that makes Jon Taylor who Jon Taylor is.
It was as if Taylor was watching a younger brother, even though it was him. There was a few-seconds pause after each question to Taylor about his historic 2021 season, though while the young Jon Taylor was being shown chewing through defenses, the older Jon Taylor was lost in the present, taking a little longer than he did to answer the previous questions.
What caused the hesitation?
“Anytime I watch film I’m always critical of myself,” Taylor said. “I had to sit back and remember that I wasn’t watching film and that I was in the middle of an interview, because anytime I do watch clips on YouTube, or on my iPad, or on film, the first thing that comes to mind is what did I do on this play, how could I have been better on that play. I know I scored on every play. But that’s me, I’m always critical, always making sure that I’m at my best. Yeah, I was breaking down what I could have done better on those plays.”
No NFL running back was better than Taylor in 2021.
In Taylor’s first two years in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts tailback already finds himself in esteemed company. Serving as the hub of the Colts’ attack in 2021, the 5-foot-10, 226-pound former Wisconsin and Salem star led the NFL with 1,811 yards rushing and 18 rushing touchdowns.
His 1,811 yards rushing was a Colts’ single-season franchise record, surpassing Hall of Famer Edgerrin James’ record that had stood for more than two decades. Taylor became the youngest player in NFL history to record over 2,000 scrimmage yards and score 20 touchdowns.
Last weekend, Taylor was in Atlantic City to receive the prestigious Maxwell Football Club’s 2021 Bert Bell Award as the Professional Player of the Year, joining Hall of Famer Earl Campbell, former Eagle and Taylor’s former Colt teammate Carson Wentz, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson as the only players to have won this tribute in their second NFL season.
The reason why Taylor has reached such lofty heights is easy — he’s never satisfied, even when he’s watching high school clips of himself scoring one touchdown after another.
“This is an amazing honor to be mentioned with the guys who have won this before me,” said Taylor, who turned 23 in January after toting the ball 332 times his sophomore NFL season, exactly 100 carries more than his rookie year. “As for myself, being at this event again, after getting a Maxwell award by senior year in high school, and being there with a Lamar Jackson, in person, was motivation to keep working.
“Now coming back, as the Bert Bell winner, it’s amazing to see this come full circle. Because now, you never know, I can become that person who some high school kid looks at and thinks about me being their motivation.”
Taylor did part ways with a former Eagle and now a Washington Commander — Wentz.
“I’m definitely sad to see Carson go,” Taylor said. “He was amazing in the locker room and on the field as well. If you look at some of the plays he made on the field but off the field he was an amazing guy always, he made sure to get in contact with everyone on the team.”
When asked why it didn’t work out for Wentz in Indy, Taylor judiciously replied, “Well number one, quarterback is the hardest position in the game of football, so that doesn’t help regardless of dealing with injuries. It’s also about finding the right fit and being in the right situation.
“Timing is everything. That is something a lot of veterans have talked about to me and that timing is everything. I know that Carson will find the right situation, that’s the kind of guy he is, he’ll make the right situation and he’s able to adapt.”
The beauty about Taylor is that the same young man who ran through, around, by and over defenses as a star at Salem hasn’t really changed much. Yes, he’s larger and faster. Yes, he’s more known than he was then. But everything else remains, from his humility to his approachability, to his connection to his Salem, South Jersey roots — and that urge to constantly improve.
“You can’t let success change you,” Taylor said. “The only things that have changed in my life is who I play for and where I’m living, but everything else remains the same. Of course, more people know who you are, but this game is a privilege and a lot of times, I feel as though some guys take the game for granted when it’s given you so much.
“I feel as though you always have to respect the game, no matter where the game takes you. Everything is earned; not given.”
Taylor did notice fast how life did change after his rookie season in Indianapolis. Because of COVID-19, everything was restricted in 2020, so Taylor would practice, play in games and head back home.
“When things started to free up, here and there, I would go to shop, and people would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, great season,’ or ‘We appreciate everything you do,’ so that’s when it began to sink in that people recognized me,” Taylor said. “It happened all over. No one asked for a picture or an autograph, it was the Colts’ fans showing appreciation. It was special to me to hear that. All I’m doing is doing what I love, but it’s what makes Indianapolis so great.”
In 2020, Derrick Henry, a former Maxwell winner as National High School Player of the Year and National College Player of the Year, was the latest NFL running back to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, running for 2,027, joining Hall of Famers O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis, along with Jamal Lewis, Chris Johnson, and future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson in the 2,000-yard club.
It’s a goal within Taylor’s grasp. What’s mystifying is that Taylor did not receive one vote for MVP, which went to Aaron Rodgers (39 votes), followed by Tom Brady (10) and one for eventual Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp.
“What people don’t realize is the year Derrick Henry rushed for 2,000, he didn’t get a single MVP vote,” Taylor said. “That’s unheard of, and it’s absurd. He was the eighth NFL player to do that. Reaching 2,000 is not necessarily a goal, because you get 2,000 and still not be where you want to be at the end of the season. I want to be a Super Bowl champion. That’s my No. 1 goal. You think about it, but only if rushing for 2,000 yards is what needs to be done for the Colts to be Super Bowl champions."
The Colts acquired Atlanta Falcons’ all-time leading passer Matt Ryan this week in a trade, and though Ryan, a former Chester County resident and Penn Charter grad, is coming to Indy as QB1, the Colts now appear to be Taylor’s team —much like the Titans run through Henry.
“I’m really excited to be with the guys, and I’m definitely going to be ready for whatever my team needs me to do (in 2022),” Taylor said. “If it means rushing for 2,000 yards, then I’ll be ready to commit to that. I didn’t even know what I rushed for this season, until after the year.
“We were a darned good football team, we just needed to find a way to finish. Rushing for 2,000 yards is something that I will push myself to do — if it means I hold up that Lombardi trophy.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.