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Sean Taylor mixes talent with trouble in rookie year

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) _ Sean Taylor, as he always does, raced for the ball with eye-popping speed and reckless abandon, arriving just in time to break up the pass.

The victim? Taylor's own Washington Redskins teammate, cornerback Fred Smoot, who stood in disbelief at having an interception knocked from his hands by an overzealous rookie.

It hurt my soul. When I looked up, I'm expecting to see a green jersey, and it was Sean,'' Smoot said.I was like, 'What are you doing? What are you doing?' It was messed up.''

The play, which occurred two weeks ago against the Philadelphia Eagles, is the perfect snapshot of Taylor's troubled first NFL season. The 21-year-old safety from Miami is extremely talented, very intense and always full throttle. But, as the youngest player on the team, he lacks the maturity to control his aggression.

The first go-round here, he made some mistakes, and I think he would tell you that,'' coach Joe Gibbs said.He's a young guy, here in the big city. Hopefully, Washington's going to get to love him.''

As of now, the city barely knows him. Even before he landed in Washington, Taylor was a quiet person who kept his thoughts to himself. But a series of events caused him to withdraw completely from the spotlight. He hasn't granted an interview since his Oct. 28 arrest for drunken driving, waving off one request by saying: ``You're going to write what you want to write.''

Taylor's four interceptions are tied for the team lead, and he's also the outright leader in merciless hard hits, both clean and dirty, and has the fines to show for it. He was docked $10,000 for an out-of-bounds hit that knocked Eagles receiver Terrell Owens into a Redskins cheerleader. He was fortunate there was no flag on the play, which ended his three-game streak with at least one personal foul. Linebacker LaVar Arrington recently called Taylor ``the grim reaper.''

And for every play on which Taylor intimidates a receiver with a big hit, there's a play on which he takes the wrong angle trying to stop a run or covers the wrong receiver downfield. Those missed assignments aren't noticed by Pro Bowl voters, who selected Taylor as a first alternate this week, but the coaches see them every week.

That's youth. That comes with being a rookie,'' assistant coach Greg Blache said.I don't usually like rookies because of that. They can usually tell you more about records and that kind of stuff than the game of football.

As he grows, as he matures, those edges get polished and rounded and you'll see a more consistent, productive player,'' Blache said.Right now he makes some huge plays for us, but he gets himself in trouble at times. His eyes will wander, or his technique will wander.''

Of equal concern for Gibbs is Taylor's off-the-field troubles. Gibbs frequently defines what he considers to be ``real Redskins'' _ core players on whom to build a foundation. Taylor fulfills part of the definition with his enthusiasm and talent, but he has failed in two vital areas: discipline and team embarrassment.

Taylor has fired two agents. He was fined for skipping one day of the NFL's mandatory rookie symposium in June. He was accused of spitting on a player during a game at Cincinnati, although he was not punished because the league said there was no video evidence.

Then came the drunken driving charge, which came eight weeks ago when he was pulled over at 2:45 a.m. after attending a birthday party for receiver Rod Gardner. Taylor skipped practice later that day and was deactivated for one game. His lawyer has entered a not guilty plea, and Taylor plans to call teammates as witnesses at his trial on Jan. 5.

Gibbs said Taylor's selection in the draft came after ``probably the most exhaustive study in history.'' But when discussing Taylor, the coach has noted that choosing people isn't an exact science. Now that Taylor is part of the Redskins family, Gibbs has no choice but to treat him as such.

The rule of thumb is, you make a mistake, you've got to pay the price,'' Gibbs said.That would be if it's your kid or anybody else that's in the family. I think he's faced up to everything so far. You love him on the football field. In the classroom and everything, I think he's been excellent.''

A mature Taylor could be one of the dominant defensive players in the league, with a rare combination of size and speed at his position. He can punish a running back like a linebacker and close the gap on a receiver like a cornerback.

That is, when he's not breaking up his own teammate's interceptions.

You dream about things when you pick him,'' Gibbs said.That's kind of what we were hoping for, that guy that controls the field, very physical. He's every bit of that. He's an unusual player.''

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