There was still time for the Bills to come back Sunday in sleety Orchard Park, N.Y., down 24-7 to the Colts early in the third quarter. Indianapolis had the ball, first down at the Buffalo 31, and coach Frank Reich loved this play-action call, and he called it. Incomplete. Penalty. The Colts got pushed out of field-goal range and had to punt. After the series was over, Reich decided to do something no coach in modern football does, and something he never does.
“Never, never, never,” Reich told me Sunday night.
“I decided I was going to run the ball on every first and second down from there on,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why?” he said. “Because every time we ran it, good things were happening. Every time we ran it, the pile was moving forward. And when you have Jonathan Taylor on your side, you know the pile’s going to keep moving.”
On the next 18 first and second downs, Reich was true to his words (almost perfectly). He called 17 runs on those 18 plays, and the lead ballooned to 41-15, and Taylor, mostly, bled the clock, finishing his 32-carry, 185-yard, five-touchdown day.
The Colts, in their most decisive win of the four-year Reich era, a win that catapulted them back into AFC South contention, had a 70-30 run-pass ratio while holding the ball for almost 38 minutes. Running it 70 percent of the time is unheard of in today’s football. The Colts played football the way Jim Brown and Jim Taylor used to: by imposing their will on the opponent. The Colts put up 41 points on a legit Super Bowl contender—and threw for a grand total of 106 yards along the way.
“This was an old-school football game,” Reich said.
And this was the coolest part: On the fourth play after Reich’s first-and-second-down run declaration, Indianapolis had a first down at midfield. Carson Wentz handed to Taylor, who burst off right tackle for 40 yards. First down now, at the Buffalo 10. As the playclock ticked down, Reich called another run, this time where Taylor could choose his own hole to the left. And he felt his coaches wondering, Aren’t you going to give him a break after running for 40? “Earlier in the season, he had an 83-yard run, and I gave it to him the next three plays, and we got a touchdown,” Reich said. “The coaches wondered about that, and I said, ‘If he was tired, he’d come out.’ “
The clock bled down to :03, :02, with Taylor a single back behind Wentz.
“Gotta go! Gotta go!” Wentz yelled, and the ball was snapped at :01.
From the 10, Wentz handed it to Taylor. At the 9, Taylor juked to the right of corner Levi Wallace, who went flying to the wet turf. Close to the goal line, there was safety Micah Hyde waiting for him. “That’s when you really have to dig deep,” Taylor told me from the locker room post-game. “When a play is perfectly designed, you usually have one man to beat. Here there was a second guy. So you have to fall back on the work you’ve put in, the study of that team during the week.”
Hyde’s a good safety, and here he was, waiting to end Taylor’s dance around the 3-yard line. Taylor whacked him in the helmet with the base of his right palm, a forceful stiff-arm, and Hyde went flying too, and Taylor juked to the left and scored.
— NFL (@NFL) November 21, 2021
Such a forceful, confident run, with a make-‘em-miss touch of Barry Sanders.
“We’re watching it,” Reich said, “and the whole sideline is saying, “Wow! How’d that happen!’ “
It happened because Taylor is as strong as he is shifty, as athletic as he is physical. The Colts are 6-5 this morning because of Taylor’s five-TD day in Buffalo, and because he has a coach willing to ride the hot hand, no matter how different the game is. Jonathan Taylor is the best back not named Derrick Henry in football, and because Henry is likely out for the rest of the regular season at least, Taylor owns the title. He is the best running back playing.
Indy GM Chris Ballard went to Wisconsin. He has a soft spot for Badgers. And when the 2020 draft came along, and Ballard thought he needed a franchise back, he and his scouting staff got fixated on the 5-10, 226-pound Taylor, who averaged 151 rushing yards in 41 games at Wisconsin—after, amazingly, bypassing a strong pitch from Harvard to play and study there. (Taylor was tempted.) Early in the second round of the draft, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and D’Andre Swift gone and the Colts still seven or eight picks away from the spot they thought they’d take Taylor, 44th overall, owner Jimmy Irsay piped up.
“Uh, Chris,” Irsay, “you’ve been talking about this guy Jonathan Taylor all spring. Don’t you think you ought to go get him?”
Ballard obliged. He got on the phone, not really worried that Taylor would get plucked before 44, but understanding that a team that might love him could swoop in with a trade to get him. So he dealt his fifth-rounder to the Browns to move from 44 to 41 to pick Taylor. And everyone in the draft room, he said, exhaled.
“I’ve worked four drafts with Chris now, since 2018,” Reich told me. “And I don’t think there’s ever been a player he liked more than Jonathan Taylor.”
So much drama in Orchard Park on Sunday—good for the Colts, nightmarish for Buffalo. Think of Reich. Twenty-nine years ago, he was playing for the Bills as a backup quarterback (starter Jim Kelly was hurt) in the AFC wild-card game against Houston. Buffalo trailed 35-3 in the third quarter and won 41-38. Now, think of Reich the coach, going into Buffalo as a 5-5 team struggling to stay in the playoff race. And they skunked one of the teams favored to reach the Super Bowl, the same team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year.
Perhaps that’s why Reich stood in the middle of his players post-game and said this:
“I know we got a long way to go . . .”
Now screaming as loud as he can scream . . .
“BUT OH MY GOODNESS THAT FELT GOOD!!!!!!!”
Then Reich was about to give the game ball to Taylor, who ran for four touchdowns and caught a Wentz pass for a fifth, when he decided he wanted to make this a family affair.
“Can we do this together?” he asked his players, who roared in approval.
They started . . . “One! Two! Three! Four! Five” in unison. And when Taylor came for the ball, the players cried, “Speeeeech! Speeeeech!”
“Like we mentioned all week,” Taylor said, “we owed those dudes something.”
Taylor’s a Jersey kid. When he was growing up, he loved space and sometime thought how fun it would be to travel through it. In high school, he was a late bloomer in football, to the point that Harvard coach Tim Murphy was convinced he had a good shot at winning a middling recruiting race for Taylor. But Taylor wanted to prove to himself he could be a great football player, and so he chose Wisconsin. “Once I got to high school and lifting weights and working at it, football grew on me,” Taylor said.
To the point that Ballard now calls him one of the five biggest offensive weapons in football. “It makes me want to go out every week and work hard so I can back him up,” Taylor said.
But 15 touchdowns now, and, barring injury, a great chance at winning a rushing title. Taylor is bright and optimistic, but he doesn’t love hearing how great he is.
“We know it’s a 1-0 mentality each week,” Taylor said. “Anytime you look too far ahead or reminisce in the past too long, that’s how you get lost in the sauce. So just understanding that we have the defending world champions coming up next week [Tampa at Indy next Sunday] and we have to take care of business to even think about our goals at the end of the year.”
But others will speak for him. “I was around Devin Hester in Chicago,” said Ballard, “and ever time he touched the ball, I thought he’d score. I’m feeling the same way about Jonathan.”
On one of Taylor’s five scores Sunday, tight end Mo-Alie Cox said: “One play at the goal line I’m blocking and I turn my head and see him fly through the air like a f—ing superhero.” Get used to it. The Colts are going as far as Taylor can drag them.