MIAMI — During a half-hour interview in advance of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Jason Taylor asks himself the best question of all.
“Would I,” he says, “trade the Hall of Fame for a Super Bowl?”
Taylor is bound for Canton but never made it to an NFL title game, which still gnaws at him five years into retirement.
He played for 15 years, mostly with the Miami Dolphins, and ranks among the greatest defensive playmakers in league history. No player recovered more fumbles or scored more touchdowns on fumble returns, and no lineman scored more on interception returns.
Even so, Taylor was surprised to be selected for the Hall of Fame in February.
“I didn’t think I would be a first-ballot guy,” Taylor says. “I thought the lack of a Super Bowl, the lack of playoff success, would come back to bite me.”
Taylor played from 1997 to 2011, and aside from one season each with the Redskins and Jets, he was with the Dolphins, playing for seven coaches who combined to win three postseason games — none after 2000.
Taylor was a 36-year-old rush linebacker with the 2010 Jets when they lost to the Steelers 13-6 in the AFC championship game. That’s the closest he came to a Super Bowl.
“I still regret I was never able to play in one or win one,” he says. “You’re in this game to win championships, you know? But I didn’t earn it. We just didn’t earn it. We had some pretty good teams a few years; it wasn’t meant to be. It stinks, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
The list of Hall of Famers who never played in a Super Bowl is long. Among others, it includes Dick Butkus, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, Lee Roy Selmon, O.J. Simpson and Derrick Thomas.
Taylor is surprised to hear such esteemed names on the list.
“Really?” he says. “Wow, I never would have thought that.”
So he’s in good company, and a defensive end has only so much influence on wins and losses. But the irony is that few defensive ends had more impact on the scoreboard.
Taylor’s 29 opponents’ fumble recoveries are tied with Jim Marshall for the league record. His six fumble returns for a touchdown are a record. His three interceptions returned for a touchdown are tied for most among defensive linemen. And his nine touchdowns are the most by a player whose primary position was linebacker or in the defensive line.
“A lot of players make plays,” former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson says. “Jason made plays that won games.”
Taylor was an undersized lineman from the University of Akron when Johnson picked him in the third round of the 1997 draft. As a rookie, Taylor says, Johnson had more faith in him than he had in himself.
“In 1997 I thought to myself, ‘Man, maybe the NFL is not for me,'” Taylor recalls. “Jimmy’s the guy who gave me a chance to play defensive end in the NFL at 240 pounds. People were saying, ‘He’s not big enough, he’s not strong enough.’ Jimmy believed in me from Day One, and showed me what it took to be successful in this league. That was a great foundation.”
His first NFL sack came when he tackled Brett Favre in an exhibition game. When the season began, Taylor was in the starting lineup.
Now, 20 years later, Johnson will present Taylor at the induction ceremony. What did Johnson see in a skinny No. 99 that others missed?
“I saw some of the same traits as a player I had in Dallas who is also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Charles Haley,” Johnson says. “Jason was an undersized defensive end pass rusher, but he had long arms and could separate from the blockers and had great quickness.
“And Jason was such a smart player. Intelligent players get better as they go on.”
That Taylor did. He made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2000, led the league with 18½ sacks in 2002, and was Defensive Player of the Year in 2006.
He attributes his knack for big plays to hustle and preparation.
“It’s like anything else — looking for a job or trying to hit the lottery or whatever it is,” he says. “You never know when that opportunity is going to present itself.”
Taylor ranks seventh in career sacks with 139½, including 11½ of Tom Brady. The Patriots are a big reason Taylor — and lots of other players — never reached a championship game, but he won their respect.
“Probably half the reason he’s going into the Hall of Fame is what he did against us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick says. “He had a lot of big games against us.”
So back to the earlier question: Would Taylor trade his Hall plaque for a Super Bowl?
“I’m noncommittal,” he says with a laugh. “That’s selfish, because the Super Bowl is a team achievement in the ultimate team sport. But the Hall of Fame is pretty dang cool. It’s hard to trade that in.”
AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower in Boston contributed to this report.
Follow Steven Wine on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Steve_Wine.