untung99.biz: Inside running back Jonathan Taylors trade standoff with the Colts

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WESTFIELD, Ind. — The large luxury motor coach was parked adjacent to the practice field, practically in the shadow of the north goal post at Grand Park Sports Campus.

It was Saturday evening, and the Indianapolis Colts were hosting their biggest training camp crowd of the week. Owner Jim Irsay brought with him a busload of friends and associates, who emerged from the vehicle decorated with a custom paint job that includes Colts logos.

Then the show really began.

A Colts staffer was sent to summon running back Jonathan Taylor to meet privately with Irsay on the bus, all with hundreds of onlookers nearby. The two men conversed for an hour before Taylor rejoined his teammates on the practice field.

Meanwhile, the Colts — including quarterback Anthony Richardson, the No. 4 overall pick in April — tried to put on an entertaining display for their assembled fans. But the drama unfolding just off the field on this night rivaled anything happening between the lines.

Shortly after the meeting’s conclusion, news leaked that the running back had requested a trade. Taylor, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, had been frustrated with the lack of a contract extension. But he also took offense to disagreements related to the management of his injuries, according to multiple sources.

A feud had been simmering all week with Irsay pushing back against running backs who believe the position is underpaid, saying some agents are selling bad faith. He later told ESPN he was not talking about Taylor. Taylor’s agent, Malki Kawa, countered that bad faith is not paying your top offensive player. It was a dramatic and public rift in a relationship that had begun with the Colts trading up to take Taylor 41st overall in the 2020 draft.

Taylor rewarded the team with a 1,169-yard rookie season. He followed with a franchise-record and league-leading 1,811 rushing yards in 2021. Taylor had become the Colts’ single-biggest offensive playmaker in three seasons, his 33 touchdowns since 2020 second only to Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry.

All of which helped explain why Taylor’s current situation has been so surprising. The standoff between Taylor and the Colts threatens to overshadow everything else going on with the team, including hiring coach Shane Steichen and drafting a potential franchise quarterback, and it adds yet another obstacle in the path of a franchise trying to find its way after a 4-12-1 season.

Now, there are mostly just questions: How will the Colts proceed? Can the relationship with Taylor be mended? And, above all, how did a team and its exciting, 24-year-old superstar become embroiled in a very ugly and very public fight?

AFTER SATURDAY’S PRACTICE concluded, Steichen was asked how he is navigating the Taylor saga.

“My obligation as the head coach is to coach the football team,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of guys that I have to coach and get ready to go. That’s how I deal with that.”

Irsay joined reporters on the field a few minutes after meeting with Taylor. It’s a training camp ritual for him to huddle with local media during camp to talk about his excitement for the season. But, this time, Irsay’s 14-minute Q&A session featured a singular topic: Taylor.

Irsay’s media availability further inflamed the situation. While attempting to make the point that no individual is bigger than an organization, he made a comment that some construed as disrespectful to his star player.

“If I die tonight and Jonathan is out of the league, no one’s going to miss us,” Irsay said. “The league rolls on. We know that. The National Football [League], it doesn’t matter who comes and who goes. It’s a privilege to be part of it and now’s the time for us to do our work as an organization.”

Less than an hour later, Taylor’s trade request — which had been made days earlier, according to sources — became public.

Although Irsay said he wouldn’t trade Taylor, the idea has not been totally dismissed at Colts headquarters, according to multiple sources, who said Taylor remains steadfast in his desire to play elsewhere.

Two league executives told ESPN they believe there is a trade market for Taylor. But the list of teams that might be interested isn’t long, they said, and that might limit the amount of compensation the Colts can expect.

Of course, Taylor suiting up for the Colts in 2023 remains a possibility. The team has the upper hand because he’s under contract.

Taylor is currently on the physically unable to perform list, which means he’s not practicing, but backup running back Deon Jackson, one of Taylor’s closest friends, stressed that Taylor’s situation hasn’t impacted the locker room or meeting room.

“He’s coming in to work every day,” Jackson said. “He’s in meetings, he’s talkative. He’s the same person that he’s always been. Nothing’s changed. … He’s just being a supportive teammate.”

Linebacker Zaire Franklin, replying to a fan’s social media post Wednesday, defended Taylor from negative characterizations.

“Why do fans think it’s okay to attack your favorite player for trying to provide for his family?” Franklin posted to social media. “That makes you a bad person?”

WHEN TAYLOR REPORTED to training camp, the Colts noticed a shift in his attitude, according to multiple sources.

Taylor’s level of anger about his situation caught the Colts off guard, according to multiple sources, who said Irsay and Ballard were particularly surprised.

Sure, the player had been seeking a contract extension, and the Colts had made no promises he’d get one. Taylor wasn’t happy about it, but he knew what the situation was when he arrived July 25.

Much of Taylor’s bitterness originated from a request by the team for Taylor to return to Indianapolis in advance of training camp so its medical staff could assess him, multiple sources said. The team saw it as a reasonable request, sources said, after Taylor underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his right ankle Jan. 25. It was a minimally invasive procedure during which small incisions were made to remove debris. Taylor was expected to make a full recovery in a few weeks to a month.

But Taylor viewed the request warily, according to sources. He believed it was part of an effort to pressure him to return to the field for the start of camp, despite his stance that he needed more time to recover.

Taylor had played hurt in 2022 before being placed on injured reserve in December because of issues with the ankle. He first sustained the ankle injury Oct. 2 in the fourth quarter of a game against the Titans and missed the next two games.

The next two months became a series of starts and stops for Taylor, as he returned to the lineup only to injure the ankle on two more occasions. Taylor was playing hurt for a team that spent the back half of the season near the bottom of the AFC standings. In a victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Nov. 13, Taylor played 61 snaps — 94% percent of the team’s 65 offensive plays.

Taylor’s performance last season, when he was often playing hurt, isn’t helping his pursuit of a contract extension he believes he earned.

Ballard said as much last week.

“The market is what the market is,” he said. “But, saying that, like I’ve always told y’all, you pay good players. You pay guys that are going to help you win, regardless of the position. We think very highly of Jonathan. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a great season as a team and he’s coming off the injury.”

Adding another layer of complexity is the assertion by a team source that Taylor complained when he reported for camp about back pain and hamstring tightness that might or might not have been related to his ankle issues, with the team taking the position that Taylor could have hurt himself while outside of the team’s care. The idea of placing him on the non-football injury list was broached, a move that could endanger Taylor’s 2023 base salary.

Multiple sources indicated such a move now seems unlikely. Meanwhile, Taylor denied any back issue in a social media post Sunday evening. The disagreements stemming from Taylor’s injury added fuel to an already contentious situation.

But the refusal of the team to present a contract offer helped set the tone.

Taylor grew increasingly frustrated with the running back landscape across the league during the course of the offseason. He saw other top backs like Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs receive the franchise tag but not long-term extensions.

Taylor has been one of the least likely players in the Colts’ locker room to say something controversial. But he spoke out in June about the financial state of running backs

“You see why guys request trades,” he said. “They just want to feel valued by not only their coaches, their teammates, but the organization as well.”

Taylor knows he could meet a fate similar to that of Barkley and Jacobs and receive the franchise tag as he approaches free agency next spring. That would severely restrict his mobility as a free agent and possibly result in him playing in Indianapolis on a one-year contract in 2024.

Irsay told ESPN last week, “When your time comes to get paid, then you get paid.”


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DESPITE THE RANCOR, Irsay said he still loves Taylor: “We think the world of him as a person, as a player.” That admiration began on April 24, 2020, during the second round of the draft.

The Colts had the 44th overall pick, so there were many scenarios that could have prevented them from landing their man. That’s why, with three picks remaining before the Colts’ selection, they decided they’d seen enough.

It was time to go get Taylor.

Ballard was drawn by Taylor’s durability at Wisconsin (he never missed a game in college) and propensity for explosive plays. The fact that Ballard got his start in football at Wisconsin, where he was once a student assistant under coaching legend Barry Alvarez, was a bonus.

Now, with the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears looming at picks 40 to 43, Ballard’s staff stressed the need for urgency.

“We’re worried about Tampa coming in over the top,” one scout can be heard saying in a behind-the-scenes video released by the team.

“Jacksonville’s a worry,” says another. “They’re shopping [running back Leonard] Fournette.”

Taking it all-in was Irsay, quietly following the back and forth. Finally, he piped up.

“I mean, I wouldn’t pass up Taylor,” he said to Ballard. “You’ve been talking about him, Chris.”

It was the push Ballard needed. The Colts took the Browns up on an offer to swap second-round choices in exchange for the Colts’ fifth-round selection. With that, the All-American running back became a Colt.

Elation overcame the staff. Irsay, in particular, was thrilled.

“Go horseshoe!” he said. “Let’s go! Take it to the house, Taylor!”

Just three years later, it all feels like ancient history.