ASHBURN, Va. -- Two plays separated former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor from others and place him in a unique category.
Both occurred in Taylor's rookie season and were witnessed by former Redskins safety Matt Bowen. They revealed Taylor’s talent -- a combination of physical play, speed and swagger.
The first occurred against the Cincinnati Bengals when Taylor clotheslined running back Rudi Johnson.
“He put the ball carrier down like he was playing versus little league,” Bowen said.
The other was against the Minnesota Vikings when receiver Randy Moss faked an out cut, then headed to a post. Taylor had started toward the out, then turned and ran with Moss on the post step for step. Taylor batted down a jump ball.
“This was probably the most impressive,” Bowen said. “Randy Moss is still the best receiver I’ve ever seen, one of the best players I’ve ever seen, but at that point, you could see that Sean had just as many natural tools as Moss had, which is amazing.”
Over the next three seasons, Taylor shed rookie inconsistencies -- botched assignments and poor angles leading to missed tackles -- and developed a reputation that resonates a decade after his death. Taylor was shot Nov. 27, 2007, during a botched burglary and died hours later. Five Fort Myers-area men were charged with Taylor's death after they broke into his house looking to steal cash.
Bowen spent Taylor’s rookie season on the injured reserve list with Washington. But he saw what Taylor could do and reached a conclusion that hasn’t changed.
“As a writer, I’ve never compared anyone to Sean,” Bowen said. “I don’t think it’s fair because Sean was that good, that talented, that unique. I haven’t seen anyone with that combination of ability like he has. Landon [Collins] is a heck of a safety. Kam [Chancellor], Earl Thomas. Those are Pro Bowlers. All excellent players. But I would still never compare them to Sean.
“He was the guy everyone wants now, and they had it then. He could play in any era and be successful. You’re talking about a free safety built like an outside linebacker who had the speed and acceleration and ball skills of a corner. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In 2015, Chancellor told reporters he watches video of Taylor before every game.
"He's still with me forever," Chancellor said. “He's with me in the game, on my shoulder every week."
Collins once said he picked the brains of former Taylor teammates Clinton Portis, LaVar Arrington and Ryan Clark. Collins said he has studied everything down to Taylor’s eating habits. Now, he wears the No. 21 in Taylor’s memory.
Nobody has worn that number for Washington since Taylor’s death, though current safety D.J. Swearinger wears Taylor's original Redskins number, 36, in his honor. Coincidence or not, 16 NFL safeties wear Taylor’s old jersey numbers of 21 or 36.
“I feel like that's the armor," Collins told reporters of wearing 21. "I'm wearing his armor. When I put that number on, I'm always representing him in any form or fashion. I try to do my best by it."
Plays such as the ones Bowen mentioned, as well as games such as the one in which he intercepted Brett Favre twice, help explain Taylor’s lasting mark. He toed a line, sometimes stepping over it. He played with a swagger -- drilling a punter with a legal hit in the Pro Bowl, hitting Terrell Owens along the sideline and a few yards out of bounds. Taylor played special teams because he wanted to set the tone.
His popularity had started to grow before he arrived in Washington, owed to his days at the University of Miami.
“They all want to be him, but I’m not sure they understand what it takes to be him,” Redskins owner Dan Snyder said. “It’s beyond being a great athlete. It’s the commitment and the hours and the study and the classroom and the actual work. In the age of highlights and YouTube, he’s incredibly relevant, so you see it and understand, and they see him and they all want to be that. Good luck; you’re not going to be.”
Bowen, also the secondary coach at IC Catholic Prep in suburban Chicago, said his advice to his group: Watch the Taylor highlights on YouTube “if you want to understand how to play the position.”
Comments like that matter to Taylor’s father.
“I always hear the commentators, and it’s rewarding to hear that players still emulate his game,” Pedro Taylor said, “like he wanted to emulate guys like Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley. I’m glad that Sean left a mark for others to follow.”