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Somehow, he seems less menacing than in the past. The beard and mustache, once the frame for a fierce, perpetual scowl, are gone now. His hair is longer, slicker, more stylish. As he stands in front of his locker, he inserts a piece of elaborate jewelry into his left earlobe.

Lawrence Taylor once described himself as "a wild man in a wild game." To be sure, there is still a streak of wildness in the man, but he has been tamed somewhat by the advancement of time, the progression of his life, and the need to restore a public image ravaged by his bouts with cocaine abuse.

He is 31 now. Taylor isn't nearly the wild man who terrorized opponents on the playing fields while fervently exploring the dark side of the New York City nightlife in the 1980s. In his 10th NFL season, the man called "LT" has finally come face-to-face with his own superstar mortality.

Earlier this week, the Bills' Bruce Smith announced what a lot of people have felt for some time now: that LT is no longer the defensive force he was in his 20's, and that while he is still capable of exerting his will on a game, his time as a dominant player has passed.

"What do you want me to do?" Taylor said after practice this week. "Hell, if that's the way people think, that's the way they think. I ain't got nothing to do with that. I mean, everybody's time passes. It happens. It doesn't concern me. It doesn't bother me one bit."

Does it motivate you, he was asked? "No," Taylor replied.

This isn't to say he is no longer a very effective player. But you have to remember, LT is regarded by many as the finest defensive player in history. One reason his teammates were able to shrug off Smith's comments about being better than LT is that they've grown accustomed to it by now.

He is the standard by which modern defensive players are measured. The problem, of course, is that LT is measured against it, too. And there's no doubt that he has slipped some in recent years. LT isn't as fast or strong as he was in his prime. He stills draws his share of double-teams, but more and more opponents are blocking him with a single man.

Taylor is the first to admit that he no longer plays the self-described "renegade" style of defense he did in his prime. Part of that is the burden of age, but it's equally a product of the Giants' more structured defensive schemes, which allow him less freedom than in the past.

He understands it, and yet the wild man in him still wants to rebel against it. Taylor, after all, signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract this year after holding out for almost the entire preseason. It made him the highest-paid defensive player in history, and he is sensitive about the need to justify it.

"I liked it better when I was more the focal point of the defense," he said. "I could be a lot more abandoned. But the game has changed. We play within the system. That gives us a better defense. It's not as much fun, but we're winning more games this way. It comes down to sooner or later the renegade-type of football leaves and then you've got to go play within the system."

It's hard to argue with the results of the Giants' defensive system. The NFC Eastern champs are 11-2 and have allowed the fewest points in the league. Just the same, it's been a difficult, up-and-down season for the nine-time Pro Bowler.

Despite his holdout, he had a great start. But on the final play of the Giants' third game against Miami, he strained his hamstring and stirred up a controversy over why he was on the field so late in a one-sided game.

Taylor went six games without a sack after that. By his lofty standards, his play was ordinary. It didn't help that fellow linebacker Carl Banks was out with a bad wrist, further limiting LT's ability to roam the field and accentuating his unhappiness.

His season reached its nadir in a 31-13 loss to the Eagles -- the Giants' first of the year -- on Nov. 25. Taylor had just two tackles and didn't come close to sacking Randall Cunningham. His performance was ordinary by anyone's standard, and that week he complained about his reduced role in a speech before a businessmen's group.

"I think the way I'm being used -- and I'm not saying it's the fault of the coaches -- is something I'm not really happy with," Taylor said. "So I've lost a lot of my aggressiveness because of that."

A week later, in the Monday night loss to San Francisco, Banks returned. Last Sunday, unchained again and motivated by the Giants' two-game losing streak, Taylor was close to his old self, contributing 12 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks in a 23-15 win over the Vikings.

Taylor also offered a fiery speech at halftime, promising to pick his play up a notch in the second half and exhorting, "Anyone who wants to follow me, C'mon."

"He just won't let us lose," said head coach Bill Parcells. "Nothing the guy does surprises me. He's a great, great player. He's the best defensive player over the last 10 years."

And if Bruce Smith thinks he's surpassed that, LT isn't going to argue with him. "I don't have to," he said. "That doesn't concern me; it doesn't bother me."

Remember, he's the standard. Every year, another challenger comes along, ready to assume his throne. All Taylor cares about is reaching another Super Bowl. Maybe he's not the old LT, but he knows how to compensate.

"He's made the adjustment to (age), and he's been able to maintain his level of play," Banks said. "It's not reflexes, it's football, and he can play football."

Taylor, who doesn't say a lot on his own behalf these days, said he's happier with his re-expanded role and feels he's playing well.

"I'm not going to make a big deal about this, guys," he said. "A season is a long time. You don't make a season with one game; you don't make a season with two and three games. You've got to analyze that stuff at the end. You can't do is midway through the season -- 'Well, are you playing good, are you playing bad?' -- you've got to wait and tally it all up at the end."

Coaches and teammates alike seem confident that LT, as always, will be there at the end, as close to his former self as possible. Taylor has lost 10 pounds since the Eagles loss, when he admitted he felt "heavy." And if last week's game is any indication, he's getting himself primed for the post-season.

He wouldn't admit it, of course, but he might have a few answers for the world, and for his erstwhile successor, Bruce Smith, today when the Giants take on the Bills at Giants Stadium.

"See, LT, he'll sneak up on you," said linebacker Pepper Johnson. "Just when you try to count him out, that's when he plays his hardest. Lawrence has been here many times before. He knows it's getting to crunch time, playoff time, and he's upping his performance.

"Everybody is hyping this game up, playing up this Bruce Smith stuff. I don't think that's going to be the main initiative for Lawrence. But when adversity hits this man, I don't want anyone else in my corner, because once you say something bad about Lawrence, that's when he shows the world he's still LT."

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