INDIANAPOLIS – Running back Jonathan Taylor will practice for the first time Wednesday following his long impasse with the Indianapolis Colts.
And there’s a chance the team’s offensive catalyst makes his season debut Sunday when the Tennessee Titans visit Lucas Oil Stadium.
“There could be, yeah,” Head Coach Shane Steichen said Monday. “Yep.”
That would be an accelerated return for Taylor, who last stepped on the playing field Dec. 17 at Minnesota. He handled two snaps before a lingering injury to his right ankle forced him from the game and resulted in him being placed on the injured reserve list.
How quickly Taylor returns hinges on how he responds to his first full-team practice since mid-December. He underwent Jan. 26 surgery on the right ankle and a protracted rehab kept him out of the Colts’ offseason work and training camp.
Taylor was placed on the active-physically unable to perform list (PUP) at the start of camp and moved to reserve-PUP Aug. 29. That required him to miss the first four games of the season, but he has been continuing his rehab at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
Now, he’s been “designated to return,” which allows Taylor to practice without counting against the active roster. The first time Taylor practices opens a 21-day window for him to be added to the active roster or be left on PUP for the remainder of the season.
The latter option seems highly unlikely considering Steichen’s comments. Taylor and the Colts have been at odds since April or May when the team informed him it would not consider a new contract until after this season.
“The conversations I’ve had with him have been great through this whole deal,” Steichen said. “I’ll keep those private, but he’s in a good spot.
“I had a conversation with him the other day, talked to him today. But he’s excited to get back with his teammates.”
When Steichen settled into his first head coaching position in February, he probably anticipated having one of the NFL’s premier running backs at his disposal. Taylor led the league in rushing in 2021 with a franchise-record 1,811 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. He also piled up a league-high 2,171 total yards from scrimmage and finished with 20 total TDs.
During his record-setting 2021, Taylor averaged a franchise-record 5.5 yards per attempt on the strength of his big-play skills. He led the NFL in rushes of at least 20 (14) and 40 yards (five). That included touchdown runs of 78, 67, 23 and 21, rushes of 83, 43, 40, 38, 34 and 33 yards and receiving TDs that covered 76 and 23 yards.
His 67-yard burst against New England in week 15 secured the 27-17 victory.
The run game struggled in 2022, but Taylor still generated a 66-yard TD at Las Vegas that helped turn back the Raiders 25-20.
That type of dynamic play was evident as Steichen evaluated the talent he was inheriting.
“He’s a big-time player,” he said. “He’s explosive. He can hit home runs when he sees the hole (with) that breakaway speed. Great vision, power.
“Obviously one of the top backs in this league without a doubt. Excited to get him back with his teammates Wednesday.”
Tight end Drew Ogletree witnessed Taylor’s rare skills up close – during the offseason work and early in training camp – before a knee injury in mid-August ended Ogletree’s rookie season.
What does Taylor bring to an offense that now features Anthony Richardson, the explosive rookie quarterback?
“Everything,” Ogletree said. “He’s a top-five back in the league for sure, if not (No.) 1. He’s so dynamic in everything that he does. He can catch the ball or he can run the ball. Obviously has breakaway speed.
“Him and AR in the backfield is definitely going to be something dangerous.”
In Taylor’s absence, Zack Moss has assumed the feature back role. He ranks No. 9 in the league with 280 yards and one TD on 66 carries.
“JT’s a helluva player. Everyone knows that, right?” Moss said recently.
He realizes his role will change once Taylor returns and gets up to speed.
“At the end of the day, my job is to be ready when my number’s called,” Moss said. “So, doesn’t matter how many times my number’s called. It’s what I’m going to do with those opportunities.
“It’s not going to be any negativity obviously when he comes back. It wasn’t like that anyways last year. He’s a great guy.
“I’m happy to go get back out there with him in this style offense. One, it keeps him healthy, keeps myself healthy throughout a year like this. As long as those things are (resulting) in wins, I don’t really think no one cares what the stats look like, what the carries look like as long as we’re coming out with a W.”
Taylor’s displeasure with the Colts is rooted in his desire for an extension. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract that pays him $4.3 million this season. That’s well below market value for a top back; the low end is roughly $12 million per season.
When Taylor learned he wouldn’t be getting a new deal, he requested a trade, which owner Jim Irsay initially refused. The team then allowed Taylor to seek a trade near the end of training camp, which never materialized despite reported interest from Miami and Green Bay.
Throughout the stalemate with one of his premier players, general manager Chris Ballard remained hopeful the relationship with Taylor could be mended
“Relationships are repairable,” he said prior to the season. “Guys get emotional and take a stance.
“You’ve got to be able to work through that. You work through it and hopefully you come out the other side better because of it.”
Despite some level of trade interest from the Packers and Dolphins, Ballard wasn’t inclined to simply rid himself of a player who wanted to be elsewhere.
“I’m not going to get into the details of teams, what was offered and what wasn’t offered,” he said. “But what I’m going to tell you is, Jonathan is valuable and at the end of the day, I’m not going to just let him walk out the door. I’m not going to do that. That’s not the best thing for the Colts and the organization.”
More: Dallis Flowers’ season over
Cornerback Dallis Flowers suffered an injury to his right Achilles in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams and will miss the remainder of the season.
He had not only started the first four games, but had been on the field for 99% of the defensive snaps before suffering what was a non-contact injury.
Also, defensive end Kwity Paye complained of concussion symptoms after the game and is in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
You can follow Mike Chappell on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @mchappell51.