'Poetry on a Football Field,' Charley Taylor: 1941-2022
A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1984, Taylor died Saturday. He was 80.
“As a kid who loved football, I watched the Washington teams of the 1970s compete at a high level and quickly became a fan of the player wearing No. 42. He seemed to make everything look so easy,” said Jim Porter, President of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Charley was never a man of many words, and in his brief Enshrinement speech, he didn’t say much about the game. He mentioned God several times. He thanked God for his good fortunes and he expressed his deep belief in God,” he continued. “We extend our thoughts and prayers to Charley’s wife, Pat, and the entire family and take comfort that their faith will help see them through this difficult time.”
Charles Robert Taylor was born in Grand Prairie, Texas, on Sept. 28, 1941. He earned all-state honors in football and track in high school and received scholarship offers from Arizona State and the University of Southern California.
Taylor opted, at first, for USC, until arriving on campus and finding himself – according to various interviews – either 13th or 16th on the Trojans’ depth chart at running back. He called Arizona State head coach Frank Kush and asked, “Is that deal still good?”
Kush never regretted saying yes.
Taylor was named to the All-Western Athletic Conference and All-America teams twice. In his three varsity seasons, he gained 1,995 yards from scrimmage, averaged almost 6 yards per carry and scored 25 touchdowns. When Arizona State launched its Sports Hall of Fame in 1975, he was a member of the inaugural class.
“He had those great, smooth, classical moves that you just don’t teach,” Kush said in an interview with NFL Films. “I still feel very strongly that he would have to be one of the all-time greats. He had it all. He was poetry on a football field.”
Both professional football leagues saw huge potential in Taylor, who was drafted No. 3 overall in the 1964 NFL Draft by Washington and No. 9 overall by the Houston Oilers in the American Football League. One person who wasn’t as certain about Taylor’s future, however, was Otto Graham. As coach of the 1964 College All-Star Team, he labeled Taylor as lazy – despite him winning MVP honors in the loss to the defending NFL champion Chicago Bears later that week – and too quiet.
“I’m just not built to make a lot of noise,” Taylor told the Associated Press when asked for a response. “I just run each play the best I can, then hurry back to the huddle.”
He and Graham would cross paths again only a few years later.
Taylor was an immediate sensation in Washington, totaling 1,569 yards from scrimmage and accounting for 10 touchdowns. His 199 rushes for 755 yards and 53 receptions – a new NFL record for running backs – for 814 yards marked the first time in 20 seasons a first-year player ranked in the Top 10 in both yardage categories. The debut earned him the league’s 1964 Rookie of the Year Award, ahead of fellow future Hall of Famers Paul Krause and Paul Warfield, and the first of his eight Pro Bowl invitations.
“Charley Taylor probably is the greatest natural football player I’ve ever seen,’” then-Washington coach Bill McPeek told the Associated Press that year. “He combines power, speed and fine open-field moves.”
Taylor recorded another solid season in 1965, earning his second Pro Bowl berth, but the team failed to achieve a winning record for the 10th consecutive season. Mired in mediocrity, Washington made another coaching change, dumping McPeek and bringing in Graham. The Hall of Fame quarterback installed a different offensive scheme and made several personnel moves, one that changed history for Taylor and the NFL.
In the middle of a game, in the middle of the 1966 season, Graham shifted Taylor to split end. For several games, Taylor played both running back and wide receiver before the switch became permanent.
Initially, Taylor wasn’t a fan of the move, but a teammate helped make the transition smoother.
“I had Bobby Mitchell there to help me out,” he told one interviewer. To another he said he also talked frequently with Lenny Moore, the back-turner-flanker with the Baltimore Colts. “I wore those guys out” with questions, Taylor said.
Mitchell, who moved into Washington’s front office after his own Hall of Fame career, was impressed at how Taylor adapted to his new position.
“We had trouble harnessing his speed and his movement, so in the backfield he was outrunning his linemen. … It became pretty evident right away that he would be better outside, where he could be free and run free and catch the ball and move,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know how many people realize it, but that’s a difficult (position switch). Once he caught onto it, he went on to be the best at it.”
With Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen at the helm, Washington quickly rose to the top of the league in offense, especially its passing game.
“Soon we were having a lot of fun,” said Taylor, who recalled running improvised plays drawn on the infield dirt of D.C. Stadium.
Taylor led the NFL in receptions in 1966 (72 for 1,119 yards and 12 touchdowns) and again in 1967 (70 for 990 yards and nine touchdowns) in an All-Pro season.
Injuries diminished his productivity in 1970 and 1971, but Taylor returned to form in 1972 as Washington finally was becoming an NFC contender under Hall of Fame coach George Allen. He averaged 54 catches per season from 1972 to 1975 and was named to the Pro Bowl each year. He scored two touchdowns in a 26-3 thrashing of the Cowboys in the 1972 NFC Championship Game as Washington reached Super Bowl VII.
Taylor retired after the 1977 season with an NFL-leading 649 career receptions for 9,110 yards (14.0 per catch) and 79 receiving touchdowns. Overall, he accounted for 10,598 scrimmage yards and 90 TDs. He finished in the Top 10 for receptions nine times and Top 10 for receiving yards six times.
He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s.
“I could catch the ball, I could run with the ball and I could also block,” Taylor said in assessing his strengths. “I think you find very few guys in the league who could do all three of those things.”
Opponents agreed, especially on the last point.
“Charley was one of the finest all-around receivers – size, speed and agility. But what I remember most about him was his ability to block downfield,” Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney told The Sporting News in 1999, when the magazine named Taylor one of “Football’s 100 Greatest Players” (No. 85). For the same publication, Hall of Famer Willie Brown ranked Taylor at No. 3 for the best blocking receivers in pro football.
“He was a very complete receiver,” Barney said. “A very big and complete receiver.”
Taylor regularly presented mismatch issues for opposing linebackers and defensive backs either too slow or two small to contend with his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and arsenal of moves refined as a running back.
“I felt that being a running back and being able to run through the line and making guys miss helped me in the long run because I was getting the ball on the cornerback who was not used to facing too many running backs downfield,” he said.
More injuries did to Taylor what few defenders could muster; they shut him down. He retired before training camp opened for the 1978 season.
“I’ve always said that when other guys come along can do the job as well or better, Charley Taylor will stand aside,” he said in making the announcement.
He stayed with Washington for another 15 years, joining Mitchell as a scout under new general manager Bobby Beathard. When Joe Gibbs became head coach in 1981, he selected Taylor to be his receivers coach. He helped Art Monk break his team records.
Taylor summed up his career this way: “My strong point was taking a short pass and turning it into 65 yards.”
That was something he did frequently, often resulting in a touchdown that, in turn, ended with a lengthy end zone celebration.
“Seeing Taylor in the end zone with his hands raised above his head for a period of 30 seconds to a minute – it was sort of a gesture that ‘I’ve done all I can do with the ball. I can’t do anything else with it,” Mitchell told NFL Films.
Of the celebrations, Taylor said: “After a 50-yard run or a 50-yard pass, it was my way of saying, ‘I rest my case.’”
Taylor made his case over 13 seasons in the National Football League. The legacy he leaves will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Here are some reactions from others around the Game:
We lost a legend— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) February 19, 2022
RIP Charley Taylor
Our thoughts and prayers are with the Taylor family 💛 pic.twitter.com/847GLRIjLX— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) February 19, 2022
My condolences to Charley Taylor’s family. An all around receiver. Much respect.— Harold Carmichael (@lookitin) February 20, 2022
I’m old enough to remember Charlie Taylor as an all time great. His skill set was equal to any receiver to ever play the game!! @Commanders @ProFootballHOF @NFLAlumni @NFLonCBS @NFL RIP https://t.co/zZv8gBYMgX— James Lofton (@lofton80) February 20, 2022
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