Some guys are meant to play their entire careers with one team, and if they're good enough and it means enough to them they will get a chance to pull it off. On Monday, Ike Taylor got that chance, and he pulled it off.
First announced via Twitter (Ike_SwagginU), Taylor has accepted a pay cut to return to the Steelers for a 2014 season that will be his 12th in the NFL. According to reports, Taylor agreed to reduce his 2014 salary by $4.25 million in a move that will put the Steelers $7 million below the $133 million salary cap that will kick in at 4 p.m. today. Those same reports indicated Taylor's deal wasn't an extension, which means 2014 will be its final season.
The Steelers wanted this result in part to create some cap space to allow them to sign some free agents – either their own or other teams' – to fortify their roster in the run-up to the draft, and Taylor wanted this because he genuinely wants to end his career with the franchise that drafted him, a motive that came through in his tweet.
Ike Taylor came to the Steelers on the second day of the 2003 NFL Draft, a fourth-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette. He arrived as a former college running back who had moved to cornerback for his final season with the Ragin' Cajuns, and this is how defensive backs coach Willy Robinson described him shortly after he was drafted by the Steelers, "He is what we look for in this organization. He is as big cornerback who can run, and he is physical."
From that bundle of raw talent, Ike Taylor worked himself into a player who has been the Steelers' best cornerback of the past 10 seasons (2004-13), a span during which the team is 105-55 (.656) during the regular season and 10-4 during six postseasons that included three trips to the Super Bowl and two victory parades through Downtown Pittsburgh.
During an era in the NFL when the way the game is legislated makes it increasingly easy for offenses to play pitch-and-catch, Ike Taylor often has been a lightning rod for criticism from Steelers fans primarily because he has only 14 interceptions in 135 career starts. That interception total is what has prevented Taylor from ever being voted to the Pro Bowl, but there has to be a reason why Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, why defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau – a Hall of Fame cornerback himself – kept putting him out there game after game.
Big cornerbacks who can run and are physical are prized by LeBeau, and balancing Taylor's career interception total is the number of times his coverage, often on the opponent's top receiver, convinced the quarterback to throw the ball to someone else. With Taylor in the starting lineup, the Steelers defense has finished seasons No. 1 overall in the NFL four times and No. 1 in pass defense three times. That doesn't happen with bad cornerback play.
And there is another side of Taylor that only his teammates see. During most of his time here, the Steelers locker room was populated by more dynamic personalities, from Jerome Bettis and Joey Porter, to Hines Ward and James Farrior, and those guys were the recognized leaders of the group. But within the bounds of his own personality, Ike Taylor is a leader all the same.
His work ethic and his dependability are examples for all who care to pay attention. The offseason regimen Ike uses to prepare his body for the demands of professional football can bring other players to their knees. Literally. And while there were some games Ike missed because he was inactive and some others he missed because he was benched, he always was ready if called upon. Ike Taylor rarely even missed a practice, unless, of course, he was having thumb surgery during training camp and then he only missed one.
In recent years, more and more of Taylor's teammates are spending part of the offseason training with him, and in 2012 when Mike Wallace was a holdout into training camp, Ike Taylor opened his Florida home to Wallace and hooked him up with his trainer while the Steelers were at Saint Vincent College so the team's 1,000-yard receiver would be in shape once the impasse ended.
Toward the end of last season, it was clear Tomlin had perceived a slippage in Taylor's play, because the defense got away from matching him vs. the opponent's best receiver, but a glance at the roster today shows he's still one of the Steelers' top two cornerbacks.
And that's how all of this came together. A player who isn't what he once was but still capable of contributing to a team he has come to love makes a decision to finish where he started.
Jerome Bettis made a similar decision some years ago, and that worked out well for all sides. The Steelers got a few more seasons of quality play from Bettis, who got to finish his career where he wanted it to end, and the team's nation of fans got to experience a Super Bowl championship.
It was Taylor's interception that set up the Super Bowl XL-clinching touchdown pass from Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward that allowed Bettis to complete his fairy tale ending. Taylor's decision yesterday to stay with the Steelers gives him a chance to complete his own.