INDIANAPOLIS – Jonathan Taylor had done this dozens and dozens of times over the past six years.
Do you want a more exact number? OK, since 2017, he’s appeared in 84 games and had 1,828 “touches’’ with the Indianapolis Colts and Wisconsin Badgers. And we’re not including his busy prep days at Salem H.S. in New Jersey.
What’s another game, right?
Well, it was just different Sunday afternoon when Taylor heard his name echo throughout Lucas Oil Stadium. He bounced through the steam at the entrance to the tunnel leading to the playing field, gestured to the sellout crowd and took his place with his teammates.
Emotions, Taylor admitted, were “high.’’
He had been in this setting so many times, but again, this was different. Taylor was making his first appearance in a game since Dec. 17 against the Minnesota Vikings. He was doing so following a prolonged absence – Jan. 25 surgery on his right ankle, an extended rehab, months-long spat with the team, you know the backstory – which meant only three practices leading up to Sunday’s game with the Tennessee Titans, and one was a walkthrough.
“It was the first time in eight years – however many years – on that extended period of time without playing on the field in an actual game,’’ Taylor said Wednesday.
Shane Steichen, coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and running backs coach DeAndre Smith agreed on a pitch count for their star back: 10 plays.
“That was sticking my toe in the water,’’ Taylor said. “I think it’s also being safe. We talked about the practice week I had last week. This will be a full week of practice which is going to be really huge.’’
Steichen had the Colts in full pads for Wednesday’s practice.
“It’s just really different when you put those pads on,’’ Taylor said.
That amped up his anxiety level as he braced for his first rushing attempt since Dec. 4 at Dallas. Taylor was on the field for just two plays at against the Vikings – no carries, one reception for 13 yards before the lingering injury to his ankle ended his third season.
As hard as he attacked his rehab routine, nothing could prepare him for what awaited last Sunday. It’s difficult to simulate that level of intensity during OTAs and training camp.
“It was weird because of the speed of the game,’’ Taylor said. “No matter how much of a pro you are, if you have been out for an extended period of time, you just need those one or two plays to kind of reset back.
“Like, ‘OK, I’ve got the speed of the game now. I know what it’s like.’ That was a real fun experience. I’m happy I was able to do, like I said, do it in front of the home crowd.’’
Taylor’s season debut consisted of six rushes for 18 yards and one reception for 16 yards that moved the chains. He stepped on the field for the first time near the end of the first quarter and took a pitch to the left from Anthony Richardson for 3 yards.
That proved to be the only time Taylor shared the field with Richardson, the Colts’ dynamic rookie quarterback. In the second quarter, Richardson suffered a grade 3 sprain to his right shoulder that will sideline him for the next four games, more likely longer.
Taylor made it a point to counsel – console? – Richardson.
“I actually told him, ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do,’’’ he said. “I hate when the rookies get hurt because they’re just getting started.’’
Which brings us back to Taylor.
He’s just getting started.
His pitch count Sunday at Jacksonville will expand.
“Yeah, we’re going to ramp him up again this week in practice,’’ Steichen said.
Maybe that’s 20 plays, perhaps 25 or 30.
After signing Taylor to a three-year, $42 million extension last Saturday, owner Jim Irsay stressed the Colts will “ease him into it.’’
“We think it will take three or four weeks before he really, really hits full stride,’’ he said.
Taylor’s return represents a challenge to Steichen and Cooter. Zack Moss has been too good to simply reduce to a someone who gives Taylor an occasional break.
Despite missing the season-opening loss to Jacksonville, Moss ranks No. 3 in the league in rushing with 445 yards. He’s averaging 111.3 yards per game, second only to Miami’s De’Von Achane (115.0).
With Taylor on hand, he was the catalyst of the 23-16 win over the Titans with a career-high 165 yards and two touchdowns. One was downright Taylor-esque: a 56-yarder through the heart of Tennessee’s defense.
Over the past four games with Moss as the feature back, the Colts are averaging 149.6 rushing yards per game and 4.8 per attempt.
In Jacksonville’s season-opening 31-21 win in Indy, Moss still wasn’t 100% after breaking his forearm during the preseason and was inactive, and Taylor still was unavailable. Deon Jackson was ineffective as the No. 1 back (14 yards on 13 carries and two lost fumbles) – he subsequently was released – and Richardson was the top rusher with 40 yards and 1 TD on 10 attempts.
Now, Moss and Taylor form a potentially dynamic tandem behind what’s been one of the NFL’s top offensive lines.
“I mean, it’s huge,’’ Steichen said. “You’ve got two really good backs. Obviously, Zack is running at a high level, and getting JT back with his explosive ability – to use both those guys in the backfield will be good.’’
“They bring an exciting element,’’ said Cooter.
You can follow Mike Chappell on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @mchappell51.