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GamePlan: Jonathan Taylor Is Reminding us the Value of a Great Running Back

Indianapolis coach Frank Reich discusses what a difference his MVP candidate makes on the team. Plus, previewing Thanksgiving Week's biggest games and top story lines.

After the Colts’ 41–15 drubbing of his old team, and in the middle of the euphoria of his postgame speech, Frank Reich held a game ball up and asked his players, “How many touchdowns was it? Can we do this together?”

One! Two! Three! Four! Five!

And in all his excitement, amid that chant, there was something the Indianapolis coach neglected to mention. Turns out, he only actually saw four of Jonathan Taylor’s touchdowns live.

Reich missed the second one, and for good reason. On the play, a second-and-5 from the Bills’ 23, the Colts’ workhorse carried out a play-action fake, got in a pass rusher’s way, leaked out into flat to Carson Wentz’s left, then turned upfield. Wentz, under pressure, threw it short. Taylor adjusted, cut inside Taron Johnson, caught flat-footed at the 12, and made for the goal line with corner Tre’Davious White and linebacker A.J. Klein closing quickly on him.

“I saw he had to adjust to the ball because Carson was under pressure, and the ball was a little bit him behind him,” Reich said from his office, on Tuesday afternoon. “So Jonathan adjusts, and he got down near the goal line, looked like he was going down, I thought he was going down, I actually looked down at my call sheet, looking for what play I was gonna call next because I thought it was going to be on the 1- or 2-yard line.”

Reich laughed, mostly at himself.

“I didn’t think he was gonna get in. It didn’t look like he was gonna get in. But he found a way to get in,” he continued. “It shouldn’t have surprised me. But it didn’t look to me, from where I was standing, like he was going to have a chance to get in. And next thing you know, they’re signaling touchdown.”

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To his coach, Taylor’s effort, and ability, on the play signified his value to the Colts, and what he meant on a day like Sunday, beyond the gaudy numbers, turf-bound defenders and happy fantasy football owners he left in his wake. And in a certain way, it also showed that a well-worn narrative in the NFL— one that’s existed since Mike Shanahan seemed to be running 1,000-yard rushers off an assembly line in the ’90s—could be challenged.

Is the idea of the star tailback’s driving a championship-level team really dead?

Or does it just take a player like Taylor to revive it?


We’re here two days early, thanks to the holiday, and we’ve got a lot to get to with Week 12 kicking off Thursday just after noon ET. In the GamePlan, you’ll get …

• A look at the slate’s headliners, including one of the most appealing matchups of the year.

• A dive into the NFC East, with some more on the changes in New York.

• Some really bad gambling advice.

• An examination of what the Antonio Brown situation tells us.

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But we’re starting with one of the NFL’s very best backs, who may also be one of its very best players.


The argument against teams’ ever drafting backs high or paying them at the top of the market isn’t that there aren’t great ones in the league. It’s that it’s always been so easy to find a perfectly adequate one, and much easier than it is to find, say, a quality corner, left tackle or edge rusher.

And while that second part is true, the Sunday that Taylor just had is one more example of the NFL’s new prototype for the position—a 225-pound queen on the chessboard, capable of grinding out tough yards and playing like a third-down back in the passing game—adding a thick layer of nuance to that conversation. Taylor’s virtuoso effort in bad weather against the Bills was just one Week 11 example of it. Among the others …

• The Saints were missing Alvin Kamara for a second straight game, and Sean Payton’s offense was held to 323 yards as a result. New Orleans’s three-game losing streak traces back to the game in which Kamara was hurt.

• Derrick Henry’s absence finally caught up with the Titans, with the team’s falling behind to the lowly Texans early, and Ryan Tannehill’s throwing four picks as Tennessee leaned heavier than it normally would on the quarterback to make its run at a comeback.

• The Bengals and Vikings rode their backs hard, and got triple-digit scrimmage-yard efforts from Joe Mixon and Dalvin Cook in important conference wins.

Taylor, for his part, did big and little things well against the Bills. You saw the former in the five touchdowns he scored—and how he basically twisted his body while slamming it through White and Klein into end zone on the first-quarter catch—and chunk plays he made (a 40-yard third-quarter burst was one). The latter, per Reich, came just as constantly.

One example was pretty much right off the top. On the game’s third play from scrimmage, the Colts faced a third-and-2, and Reich dialed up an inside run to Taylor that, just before the snap, looked like it was dead on arrival. Johnson, Buffalo’s nickelback, had creeped into the box to Wentz’s right as the quarterback called signals, too far inside for receiver Michael Pittman, assigned to take Johnson out of the play, to block him.

Sure enough, as Wentz handed the ball to Taylor, Johnson was waiting in the hole for him. Hand most backs the ball in that spot, and you’re in fourth down. But not Taylor. Somehow, he slid just to Johnson’s left, and lunged past him for three yards and the first down. Eight plays later, Taylor scored his first touchdown to cap an 11-play, 65-yard drive, and make it 7–0 Colts midway through the first quarter.

“He’s one of the few backs in the league who’s going to make that a first-down run,” Reich said. “And it’s a three-yard run that results in a first down. We end up scoring. That could change the game. That play right there could’ve changed the game. He did that with a three-yard run. So it’s not just the 80-yard runs that show how great he is. Sometimes it’s a three-yard run or it’s third-and-1 and getting that one yard—that’s what the great players do.”

To drive home his point, Reich then recalled a similar circumstance just three weeks ago. It was fourth-and-1, with 3:22 left in the game on Halloween. The quarterback took the snap and ran an option play to his left, right at Reich, standing on the sideline. The quarterback pitched to the back. Two defenders had him pressed against the boundary with nowhere to go. The back stiffed-armed one, ran through the other and dove past the sticks.

Same idea, right? But in this case, it was a back doing it to Reich, instead of for him.

“[Ryan] Tannehill came down the line on an option, and he pitched it to Henry, and our defense was in good position to stop him. And Henry’s at the sideline, right in front of me, I’m standing right there, and it looks like there’s no way he’s gonna get the first down,” Reich said. “And I don’t know how he did it, but he somehow got the first down. It was like he willed himself to get the first down. That’s what Jonathan does.

“Jonathan has that same thing. It’s plays like that, that you’re talking about.”

That thing, as Reich sees it, is the separator at the position.

“In the corniest of ways, I’d say it’s like a superpower. It’s an extra gear,” Reich said. “It’s a unique gift, a combination of size, strength, power and a vision to know how to do it.”


In some cases, those superpowers of certain backs were obvious early to NFL folks. Todd Gurley was the 10th pick in the draft and only lasted that long because of knee issues. He ended up being transformative for the Rams and the top offensive player on a Super Bowl team. Ezekiel Elliott was the draft’s fourth pick, won two rushing titles, was vital in helping the Cowboys develop Dak Prescott, and was the offensive focal point for two playoff teams.

With Henry and Taylor, there were more doubts that outsized college production would translate as easily. Both carried questions on passing-game value. Both came from programs that churned out backs with obscene college production. As such, both needed sponsors to find their place in the NFL.

In Indy, GM Chris Ballard proved to be Taylor’s.

“Chris had his eye on Jonathan long before anybody else,” said Reich. “I mean, everybody loved Jonathan. But Chris saw in Jonathan a superstar. I’m not saying nobody else saw that, but if you really want to talk to the person who was the key in the whole thing, Chris is the guy. … He’s been in the Jonathan Taylor camp from Day 1, and as the GM that’s obviously a pretty significant deal.”

Two things stood out, from Reich’s perspective, in how Ballard described Taylor. The first thing was the character assessment—and as a Wisconsin alum, Ballard is wired in Madison, with the connections to get to the truth on players, good and bad. The second thing was how Taylor was at his best in the Badgers’ four-minute offense, running through opponents when it was time to bleed the clock and everyone knew he was getting the ball.

And it wasn’t just in the numbers. It was also in how hard Ballard saw Taylor playing in some of those late-game situations, watching him live, rather than on tape.

“You see that, it just tells you that you have another gear. You have another gear,” Reich said. “Nobody does it perfectly, everybody gets stopped at some point. But yeah, when you show that on a consistent basis, it’s more than noteworthy.”

From there, seeing Taylor work out convinced Reich that he was a natural receiver, and, because of the character piece, the coach knew Taylor would keep working on that part of the game too. By the end of the process? The Colts were sold that Taylor was worth trading up for—and they moved from 44 to 41 on draft day to get him.

And what they have now is a back who’s affecting the game the way Henry does for the Titans, helping to make Wentz’s transition to a new team a smooth one, and allowing the coaches to game plan in a way that protects a defense that’s got a lot of young talent and is coming along.

Now, eventually, they’ll come to the point that the Cowboys did with Elliott and the Titans did with Henry—and the Bengals, Vikings and Panthers have with their backs—and have to confront the idea of paying a guy at a position where longevity is scarce. Carolina is one team that’s borne the brunt of such a situation, with Christian McCaffrey’s having taken a lot of lumps injury-wise since signing a four-year, $64 million extension in the spring of 2020.

But in the other cases, the teams have gotten their money’s worth, and will be out of the guaranteed portion of those contracts next year. And how much are they really paying? McCaffrey is making a little less than Brandin Cooks and Adam Thielen. Elliott and Kamara make what Carl Lawson and Trey Hendrickson do. Henry and Cook are making, on average per year, right around what Corey Linsley, Jerome Baker and Hunter Henry do. And Cleveland’s Nick Chubb makes less than Detroit pass rusher Romeo Okwara.

Which, when you consider what these guys mean to their teams, seems like a bargain.

And that’s not to say every back is. But as is the case at other positions, there are a few guys who are different from everyone else, and the value of having one is something that, as we talked, became very simple for Reich to explain.

“The value is in a difference-maker,” Reich said. “In a game where the object is to move the ball down the field, a guy who can do that better than anybody else makes a huge difference. I mean, the object of the game is put this ball over that line, and he’s got the ball in his hands. What more is there to say than that? And if he can do that better than anybody else, it’s a tremendous value.”

Taylor did a pretty job of illustrating that for his coach on Sunday—and especially when that coach of his didn’t feel compelled to look for it.


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FIVE STAR MATCHUPS

1) Rams at Packers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): L.A. limped into its bye with losses to the 49ers and Titans, and comes out of it to see the team that ended its 2020 season—and helped set in motion the Rams’ massive quarterback swing of last January. So you have the Sean McVay vs. Matt LaFleur angle here. You’ll get a good barometer of where Matthew Stafford is 10 months in, with a shot to show how much more equipped the Rams are to go toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers. And this one could determine whether a playoff rematch between these two would be in California or Wisconsin, which carries big, and obvious, implications. This, to me, is the best game on the slate this week by a lot.

2) Titans at Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): New England’s back on the marquee, and the Patriots’ old buddy Mike Vrabel is sitting there waiting for them. Mac Jones has been mostly steady the last month—with a spectacular flourish against the Browns—and it’ll be interesting to see if he can maintain that against Jeffrey Simmons and an active, disruptive Titans front. And for Tennessee, the stakes here are clear. The Titans walk out either two games clear of, or tied with, the Patriots in the AFC race. After beating the Rams and Saints without Derrick Henry, it’s fair to ask if their best player’s absence caught up with them against the Texans. Or maybe that was just a blip? We’ll know more around 4 p.m. ET on Sunday.

3) Buccaneers at Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Tampa systematically took the Giants apart on national TV the other night and the Bucs looked like they might be going back into death-star mode after 29 days without a win. And maybe they are. But the Colts seem like just the kind of team that can force Tampa into the kind of tractor pull of a game that Tom Brady & Co. may not want to play. So this one might come down to something very simple: the Bucs’ top-ranked run defense (allowing just 78.4 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry) against Colts stud Jonathan Taylor (eight straight games of 100 scrimmage yards, with 15 total touchdowns over that stretch). How that plays out could well tell the tale of this one.

4) Browns at Ravens (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): Since a heartbreaking loss to the Chargers in Week 5, it’s fair to say Cleveland’s only looked like its September self once—in a 41–16 win over the Bengals three Sundays ago. The offense has looked disjointed. The defense has endured a couple of meltdowns. At 6–5, coming off a sluggish win over Detroit, it’s fair to say the season’s reached a critical point. And here come the Ravens. The Browns’ next two games, sandwiching a bye, are against their AFC North rival, which has been among the most resilient teams in football. Also, fair or not, these two games could serve as a referendum on where Baker Mayfield stands, seeing as he’ll be head-to-head with draft classmate Lamar Jackson.

5) Steelers at Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m.): It was tough to pick the last couple of spots on this list—with Raiders-Cowboys and Bills-Saints on Thanksgiving matching teams that are reeling but remain squarely in the playoff chase. Why Pittsburgh-Cincinnati over those two? Because these teams traditionally hate each other. So this one has obvious stakes—keeping pace with the Ravens, and in the overall picture of the conference—and a chance to get kind of chippy too.

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FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW

The chaos of the NFC East. Things are always high-stakes in that division, with the history of its teams, and nowhere was that more apparent early this week than with the Giants—where a bad Monday led to the team’s offensive coordinator losing his job Tuesday. The truth is, this one was in the works for a while. Joe Judge and Jason Garrett were a wobbly fit stylistically, and from a teaching standpoint from the start, and that was apparent way back when line coach Marc Colombo (a Garrett import from Dallas) was fired last fall. But that this would happen in-season to Garrett, who is close to the Mara family, really does put everyone in football ops there on notice. And the interesting thing is the Giants actually haven’t been that bad of late. They’d won two of three going into Tampa, and a win over suddenly-hot Philly on Sunday would keep their faint hopes alive. If it goes the other way? Well, then you’d have two teams heading in very different directions, with the Eagles rising into real playoff contention. Meanwhile, Washington’s won two straight and has a bunch of players who rallied from 2–7 to win the division last year. So if the Cowboys lose to Vegas on Thursday, an East race that seemed over a couple of weeks ago could be back on. And yup, as you can tell, there’s a lot going on here.

Can Justin Herbert start to build some momentum? We probably all overuse the term “blueprint” when it comes to defensive coaches game-planning a quarterback, but I do think Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale drew something up a month ago, in Baltimore’s 34–6 over the Chargers, that was replicated thereafter—and led to a small slump from Herbert (which is not unusual for a young quarterback). The Vikings and Patriots, like the Ravens, were able to muddy the picture for Herbert, take away his threats on the outside and, as a result, speed the game up on him. And then, on Sunday, against a proud Steelers defense going without its two Alphas, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, Herbert bounced back in a very, very big way (30-for-41, 382 yards, 3 TDs, INT). So can he build off that? This week should be a test, with Brandon Staley off to Denver to face his mentor, Vic Fangio, and Fangio’s bringing a defense that’s one of the league’s most difficult on young quarterbacks.

Are the 49ers for real? Kyle Shanahan’s creativity has brought the Niners’ run-game to life the last two week. San Francisco ran right through the Rams’ defense for 156 yards two Mondays ago, and gashed the Jags for 171 yards on the ground last week. Both were season highs. Both incorporated receiver Deebo Samuel (13 carries, 115 yards, 2 TDs in those two games) in a Percy Harvin type of role. Both were accompanied by ultra-efficient performances from Jimmy Garoppolo (passer ratings of 141.7 and 126.3), and a bunch of highlight-reel plays from the defense. So now, it seems, San Francisco has its identity. The Niners are back at .500. And the schedule down the stretch is manageable, putting a run to the playoffs in the their sights. That makes 50/50 games like this one, against a really good Vikings team that’s in similar position to San Francisco, really important.

Can the Seahawks stop the bleeding? Seattle’s had some chaotic times over the last 12 years, but I can’t remember there being one like this, where it feels like the team might be lacking direction. As we mentioned, they’re on national TV on Monday, and national games can sometimes magnify issues like the ones the Seahawks have. How Russell Wilson shows up in this spot, now having a couple weeks under his belt, is worth paying attention to. So too will be how Pete Carroll and his staff work to get the team out of what feels like a pretty deep hole. The Seahawks have just one win since the first weekend of October, and that one came over the Jaguars.


TWO BEST BETS

Season record: 715 (All these 11 weeks are definitely bringing up the winning percentage, which isn’t a great commentary on how I started the season).

Lions (+4) vs. Bears: The Lions typically play well on Thanksgiving. And yeah, I know Tim Boyle’s the quarterback. But I just don’t see Chicago running away with this one.

Giants (+4) vs. Eagles: This is another that I just see as a field-goal game, either way. Yes, the Eagles are playing better than the Giants right now. But I don’t think this will be a rout.


THE BIG QUESTION

How have teams handled verifying players’ vaccination status?

It’s an important question now, for an obvious reason—because the story of Antonio Brown’s status continues to linger, as do suspicions that fake vaccination cards might’ve been used in other places.

That made me wonder exactly how the process of verifying guys’ vaccinations has been happening. And it sounds like the truth is it’s a little bit like being carded in college, where some bars might be a little more difficult to fool with a fake ID than others.

Why does that analogy apply? I’m told the league has left it up to the individual teams to verify each player’s vaccination status, then report it to the league. The simple standard for verification is to check their card. Most people reading this presumably have one of those cards—and I don’t know about you, but it sure looks to me like it’d be a lot easier to create a phony version of one of them than it would be to create a believable fake driver’s license.

Now, that’s not to say teams didn’t go the extra mile and make calls on cards that look sketchy (though they need the player’s consent to access the actual records). Maybe all of them did. But if it’s up to each team to do it that way, like it’s up to individual bars to enforce laws on selling booze to people of a certain age, well, then it’s easy to see where one place might be a little tougher with the rules than the next place—because there’s a motive to get a little lax in each case.

And one other reason why these things could wind remaining under wraps? Let’s look at what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on Dallas radio on Tuesday about Amari Cooper, who’ll miss Thursday game after testing positive, as a result of being unvaccinated.

“You check ‘me’ at the door in a football team,” Jones told 105.3 The Fan. “That has nothing to do with the issues of masking, not masking, getting vaccinated, not getting vaccinated. And if I have a ton, I shouldn’t. It just has nothing to do with it. The facts are it is a ‘we’ thing when you walk into the locker room, and anybody is being counted on to pull his weight. Everybody expects that. They look around at each other. They understand everybody’s rights. They do. We do. Everybody understands our rights and our options as it pertains to those rights.”

Jones then praised Cooper, calling him one of the highest-character players on the team, before continuing with his point.

“So my point is he’s outstanding and nobody’s saying that he isn’t outstanding,” Jones said. “But this is a classic case of how it can impact a team … This is not individual; this is team. You cannot win anything individually. So, all of that are statements everybody has heard until they are blue in the face. But the point is this popped us. This did pop us.”

So why did Jones’s statement stand out? Because you almost never hear any player or coach take a stand like this on players’ decisions to be vaccinated—or go unvaccinated—and that’s part of the equation here too.

Players’ vaccination choices, in many team facilities, have landed in the same bucket as politics, religion, family and money, among things you don’t raise with guys unless they raise them with you. And so if it’s not comfortable even bringing the topic up, you might imagine how difficult it would be to call anyone out, like Jones did.

Which is just another reason why questions like those raised about Brown’s status might’ve been inevitable all along.

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