In the NFL, as in life, the past informs the future.
Last year’s failings help build next year’s team.
Last week’s tape helps to prepare for next week’s matchup, and past great players inspire current ones, as current stars inspire future ones.
One unit in the NFL where this process is more visible than most is with the Washington Redskins’ safeties.
Ask any Redskins fan who was the greatest safety to play the game and the answer will be unanimous. It was a man who was murdered 11 years ago, on the 27th day of this month.
The late Sean Taylor will always be immortal in the eyes of Redskins fans, as well as many current NFL stars. Even New York Giants’ Landon Collins wears number 21 as an homage to the man his teammates named “Meast” – because to them he was half man, half beast.
At FedEx Field you will never see anyone other than fans wearing 21 simply because nobody will ever be able to replace him. Indeed, for this reason on the first defensive snap the Redskins played after Taylor’s untimely death they lined up without a player occupying the position.
The number 21 has been retired in Landover, but the numbers’ inspiration lives on. Sean Taylor inspires greatness still, and that is most evident in team captain and starting strong safety DJ Swearinger.
DJ Swearinger wears number 36. He paid $75,000 for the privilege. Why? Because 36 was Taylor’s rookie jersey number.
He also wore the number in Arizona. Why? Because Patrick Peterson already had the 21.
Before each game Swearinger watches Taylor highlights.
He tapes his facemask in the same way Taylor did once much to the ire of then defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
He models his game on the late safety and so far this season is close to matching Taylor’s stats from 2007. He leads the league in interceptions with 4, Taylor had 5. He has 7 passes defended, Taylor had 9. He has 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Taylor had 1. He has just two missed tackles all season and is rated as one of the best safeties in the NFL.
He would say his success is all down to Sean Taylor.
At the end of October the Redskins acquired versatile safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in a trade with the Green Bay Packers.
Clinton-Dix is another player who models his game around Taylor. Guess which number he wore in Wisconsin?
That’s right – 21.
“He’s one of the best to ever play this game, and that’s not just for the money, but because of love of the game. He was a leader. He didn’t talk much, but he led by example. And he set great examples,” Clinton-Dix said. “So that’s someone you want to admire. Somebody you want to look up to. And someone you want to feed off of. There’s no way I can be Sean Taylor, but he’s a guy I look up to, and I model my game after him.”
Swearinger and Clinton-Dix train together in Miami during the off season. They have a mutual respect for each other. They both play the same positions in the same way, inspired by the same man.
The future of the safety position in Washington looks as solid as Swearinger and Clinton-Dix’s combined stats, and it is all thanks to the past greatness of Sean Taylor.
Our NFC East reporter is Chris Milner who covers Redskins, Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants. Chris is a Washington Redskins fan who has followed the game since 2011. He is one of our fantasy football correspondents and also co-hosts the ‘Same Level Fantasy Football’ podcast. Follow him on Twitter @chrismilner