Jonathan Taylor returned to the practice field Wednesday for his first workout in 10 months.
Now he must prove to the Indianapolis Colts coaches he can carry the workload Sunday against Tennessee.
The All-Pro running back and 2021 NFL rushing champion was activated from the physically unable to perform list before a light, scaled-back practice, which gave Taylor his first real chance to take snaps with rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson.
“It’s pretty simple just handing the ball off, knowing where to step,” Richardson said when asked how long it would take the two to get in sync. “It’s also learning the running back, learning how he wants the ball given to him, how he wants passes thrown to him. Maybe a couple days, maybe.”
The Colts are banking on a quick, seamless transition.
Taylor did not speak to reporters Wednesday before or after practicing for the first time since going on injured reserve Dec. 20. He then missed all of the team’s offseason workouts following ankle surgery, spent all of training camp on the physically unable to perform list with lingering pain in the ankle and opened the regular season still on PUP.
So on the first day he could be activated, Indy wasted no time making its move. First-year coach Shane Steichen expects Taylor to catch up quickly.
“He’s heard it all, so taking his notes, getting ready,” Steichen said. “Anytime you sign a player — you sign players on Wednesday that start on Sunday.”
The Colts know what they have when Taylor is healthy and motivated — one of the league’s top playmakers.
After replacing the injured Marlon Mack in Week 1 of his rookie season, Taylor rushed for 1,169 yards and caught 36 passes for 299 yards and another score. He was more impressive in Year 2, winning the league’s rushing title with 1,811 yards and 18 TDs, leading the league in scrimmage yards (2,171) and sharing the league lead with 20 total touchdowns.
Last season, for the first time in his pro or college career, Taylor dealt with injuries. He missed six games and finished with 861 yards, four TDs and a per carry average of 4.5 yards — all career lows.
But the former Wisconsin Badgers star wasn’t just upset about injuries or stats. He also wanted job security, a contract extension.
In the spring, Taylor started lobbying for a new deal with one more year on his rookie contract. He complained publicly about the league’s undervaluing of running backs and was embroiled in an ugly contract dispute, which included a social media spat between his agent and Colts owner Jim Irsay as well as an hour-long meeting on Irsay’s bus — in front of a capacity training camp crowd. Shortly after, word leaked that Taylor requested a trade and in August, Indy gave him permission to find a trade partner. Nothing worked.
Now, in Week 5, Taylor is active, apparently healthy and has been warmly embraced by teammates.
“We care about him more than just as a player but as a person, you know, his family,” said linebacker Zaire Franklin, who leads the NFL with 57 tackles. “We all know he’s got things going on, but we’re here to support him anyway.”
ESPN also reported that the frosty relationship between Taylor and the Colts front office is “vastly improved right now” as Taylor is in a “much better headspace.”
Getting Taylor back to practice was one significant step.
The next will be figuring out how quickly he can get into playing condition and how to work him into a lineup that has been better than expected through the season’s first month.
Over the past three weeks, Zack Moss has emerged as a reliable replacement. Indy is 2-1 during that stretch, falling to the Rams in overtime last weekend for a sixth straight home loss. The fourth-year running back, acquired in a midseason trade from Buffalo last year, broke his right forearm during the preseason and returned in Week 2.
Moss leads the team with 280 yards rushing, including a career-high 122 yards in a Week 3 overtime victory at Baltimore. With Richardson’s size, 6-foot-4, 244 pounds, speed and ability to run, it’s been a productive pairing. When Taylor joins the mix, it will only complicate things for opponents.
“I don’t think they’re going to change the quarterback’s role, right?” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “He’s good, he’s fast, he’s tough to tackle. So whatever the quarterback does after that, if he pulls it, that’s on somebody else. But he [Taylor] is good, very good player, excellent player. So we’ve seen all those runs that he probably would be doing.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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