Home Sports Bitter words, a trade demand and a $42 million extension: How Jonathan Taylor, Colts found common ground

Bitter words, a trade demand and a $42 million extension: How Jonathan Taylor, Colts found common ground

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Bitter words, a trade demand and a $42 million extension: How Jonathan Taylor, Colts found common ground

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INDIANAPOLIS — Colts running back Jonathan Taylor had a bounce in his step Wednesday afternoon while preparing to suit up for his first padded practice of the season.

It was a big day because it marked the first hurdle toward the expanded playing time he’s expected to receive against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), when he’ll ramp up his involvement in his second game of the season.

“Another step,” said Taylor, all smiles at the prospect of additional touches. He had seven in his Week 5 debut. “I can’t wait to attack today.”

The scene seemed unlikely not so long ago. Taylor’s excitement, his mere presence on the roster, and — most of all — his new three-year contract were hardly certainties before all recently became reality.

Six weeks ago, Colts general manager Chris Ballard described Taylor’s messy contract dispute with the team with rare transparency, saying, “I’m not going to sit here and give you some rosy picture like, ‘Oh, everything’s OK.’ It sucks for the Colts. It sucks for Jonathan Taylor. And it sucks for our fans.”

So, how did a contract standoff that led to a trade demand and frustration on both sides give way to the sort of progress that produced the $42 million extension Taylor signed last week?

As one team source summarized, it boiled down to a simple concept: “Ego versus outcome.” In other words, for both sides, inflexible goals had to yield to achieving the best result.

“There was just a lot of work trying to mend the spirit and the heart,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “Everyone has their heart in the right place, but it doesn’t always come out that way.”

That proved very true in recent months. A situation touched off by the Colts’ decision to deny Taylor’s request for a contract extension in the spring evolved into a full-blown public spate after Taylor reported for training camp in July. Taylor made a trade demand the day he arrived. Later, Irsay and Taylor’s agent, Malki Kawa, exchanged unfriendly words on social media. Taylor even left camp on two separate occasions.

After briefly allowing Taylor to seek a trade — but ultimately declining the available offers — the Colts placed Taylor on the physically unable to perform list because of a previous ankle injury. The decision, which meant Taylor would miss the first four games, bought the sides time to figure out how to proceed. But progress still hinged on the parties navigating hard feelings.

Slowly, steps were taken in that direction, multiple sources said.

First, there was Ballard reaching out to Kawa in an effort to take the temperature down. Keep in mind, this happened even after Ballard had been told on multiple occasions Taylor no longer wanted to play for the Colts. Ballard’s icebreaker, multiple sources said, helped improve communication.

Still, Taylor was not truly integrated into the team at this point. He was undergoing rehab at the team facility before daily practices, then would depart without attending offensive meetings (an agreed-upon approach with the team, team sources said). He wasn’t even attending the Colts’ home games.

But when he was in the building, Taylor began having deeper conversations with coach Shane Steichen. Those conversations, Taylor said, proved pivotal. Through their chats, they discovered their common ground.

“We both wanted to win,” Taylor said.

They each marveled at the potential of rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, and Taylor wanted to be a part of the young quarterback’s success. Richardson was placed on injured reserve this week, but he was off to a scintillating start before sustaining a shoulder sprain.

“We had the same kind of feelings toward [Richardson],” Taylor said. “I want to be here for A.R. I want to be able to help him grow in the future. He’s the future of this organization.”

Taylor’s conversations with Steichen were refreshing for the 2021 NFL rushing leader. His contract situation had dictated the state of his relationship with the team for months, but his talks with Steichen allowed him to temporarily put the business aspect aside. Ballard noticed a change in Taylor’s demeanor.

“With all of the business stuff going on, just to be able to sit down and really be able to just connect with someone in the building was a big thing,” Taylor said. “That’s a stressful side. But I was able to just sit down with Shane and just talk about what it looks like going forward. Not only for myself, but the whole entire team. Just his vision. And he wants to legit dominate.”

Meanwhile, the Colts were surprisingly competitive on the field. They started 2-1, and an interesting picture was taking shape: Running back Zack Moss was enjoying some early success, and the notion of pairing him with Taylor became even more appealing, team sources said.

The Colts, who many had predicted to be among the worst teams in the AFC, started to view their season differently.

“We all see the type of potential this football team has,” Irsay said.

In the days leading up to the Colts’ Week 4 game against the Los Angeles Rams, Ballard reached out to Taylor’s camp and expressed an openness to discussing a deal, according to a source close to Taylor.

The following week, Taylor was designated for return from the PUP list and began practicing on Oct. 4. The next day, he appeared at a news conference that felt awkward at the time but makes sense in retrospect. The deal was being negotiated, and no deal is ever done until it’s done. That might explain why Taylor showed a reluctance to make declarative statements. Among his replies when asked about his future, he said, “I’m here right now.”

By the following day, Oct. 6, a contract was on the table. The loose ends were tied up the next day and Taylor signed on the dotted line. Every effort was made, sources said, to get Taylor in the fold before his first game of eligibility. Taylor, according to a source, did not want to play without a new deal in hand.

But after putting aside emotions and finding areas where they were aligned, Taylor and the Colts pulled off a feat that once seemed implausible, if not impossible.

“If there are problems with a player, you have to overcome it as a franchise,” Irsay said. “But it’s better when everything, everyone is humming in the right direction.”

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