Week 13 of the 2007 season will be remembered as one of the most somber and moving gamedays in Washington football history. FedExField was filled with 85,000 fans who came to watch the Burgundy & Gold take on the Buffalo Bills just five days after the home team's star safety Sean Taylor was murdered at the age of 24.
"Coming out, it was extremely emotional. It was an extremely emotional week," Taylor's teammate Reed Doughty recalled. "There were the emotions of Sean not being there, the emotions of knowing his girlfriend and daughter just lost a dad."
That Sunday will be remembered as a collectively traumatic "first." It was the first chance for a fan base to grieve together. The first chance for a group of guys to play a football game after the loss of one of their own. And one of the most memorable moments of that first game after Taylor's death was the first play.
In a nod to the absence of a man who had spearheaded Washington's defense, the unit took the field for the first time that afternoon with only 10 men. Doughty was the player -- the impending eleventh man in the starting defense -- held back on the sideline during the first play.
When it finished, Washington's No. 37 jogged on the field to tackle a task for which no amount of coaching or game film watching could ever prepare him: play starting safety after Taylor's death. In what he describes as the "opportunity to get on the field [he] wish had never happened," Doughty approached his job that day, and for the rest of the season, with a deep sense of humility and drive to honor his late teammate.
In the Week 11 matchup just before Buffalo, Doughty had stepped in for the Taylor under very different circumstances, as the starter was unable to play due to an ankle injury. Ahead of what was going to be Doughty's second-ever NFL start, Taylor had offered reassurance and confidence, boosting his back up with a pump-up talk before the game.
"Sean was like, 'You can do things on this team that nobody else can do, and that's why you're playing,'" Doughty recalled. "He didn't need to say that. I don't know if it was entirely true, but he just said, 'You're the best man for the job. Right now, you need to play to your strengths. Don't try to be Sean Taylor,' which of course I couldn't be."
That was one of the last exchanges the two would ever have. The devastating news of the tragedy came in two rapid, sickening blows: On Monday, the team learned that Taylor was shot at his Miami area home. The following day, it was announced that Taylor had succumbed to his injuries.
Washington came together right afterwards to cry, process and sit in the disbelief side-by-side. No road map existed for how to move forward. In the meetings and practices that followed, the team grieved while getting ready for the Week 12 game against Buffalo.
"I thought Coach [Joe] Gibbs was probably the biggest cornerstone in getting guys understanding what they should do," said Jerry Gray, Washington's defensive backs coach at the time. "As a coach, you don't prepare for that, but he kind of took control of the situation, which I thought was incredible."
Doughty's position balancing mourning and preparing collided in a unique way as he readied to be a starter for Taylor.
"It felt unnatural. It felt uncomfortable, because you can't replace somebody of that magnitude," Doughty said. "So, getting ready for that Buffalo game, I'm playing the safety position for the Washington team, I'm not taking Sean's place. I'm not replacing Sean. I'm not stepping in in any way for Sean. I just need to go do what I can do to help the team."
In the coaches' offices that week leading up to the Bills matchup, Gibbs and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams quietly organized a plan to pay tribute to Taylor by starting a man down on defense against Buffalo.
"I think that was only fitting. It was important for us to show that we were missing the guy…it was something that we could do in solidarity," Gray recalled of the 10-man gesture.
Washington gave up 22 yards on that first down, a big play that one could have imagined Taylor shutting down earlier with a crunching tackle. On the next snap, Doughty came in and shut down the Bill with the ball on what was just a 2-yard gain. He finished the game with five solo tackles.
"The best thing about Reed is he went out and played like Reed Doughty," Gray said. "He didn't try to play like no one else."
Though Washington ended up losing to Buffalo by one point that afternoon, an undeniable shift had taken place within the team that week.
"I thought that was the beginning of bringing us together as a family per se," Gray said. "You of course hate to go through a tragedy like that, but I thought that kind of brought us closer as a family/team than we had ever been."
In the face of the odds, playing with a 37-year-old backup quarterback and without a star and a leader in Taylor, Washington won the next four games -- must-wins if it wanted any chance of making the playoffs. The team won its final game against the Dallas Cowboys by a poetic 21 points to seal the wildcard spot.
And though he did not try to be like Taylor when it came to the details of the safety spot, Doughty was motivated to approach his role like the great No. 21 always had. Hit hard. Never give up on a play. Don't dwell on the mistakes. Just keep going. That, Doughty realized, was the best way to honor Taylor in the position.
"Every time I stepped on the field, I was thinking, 'Do it for Sean,'" Doughty said. "'Play hard. "Don't leave anything left unturned.'"