(Falcons left tackle Sam Baker sat down with D. Orlando Ledbetter last week to discuss his play last season and how he plans to rebound in 2012, the final year of his contracct. Here’s the story that ran in Monday’s print editions.)
By D. Orlando Ledbetter
FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons left tackle Sam Baker may have been the player most affected by the loss of the mean and downright nasty Harvey Dahl.
While Baker battled through injuries last season, he also lost that rugged spirit and guile that Dahl, a guard who went to St. Louis in free agency, infused into the offensive line as they rambled to the NFC South title in 2010.
Late last season, when his wife, Antoinette, gave birth to their first son, Gunnar Harvey Baker, the big left tackle had some of his soul restored.
“He was born Christmas Day; he’s 5½ months,” said Baker, who gave Gunnar his middle name after Dahl.
Baker’s career is at a crossroads as he hopes to return to the glory days of 2010 when the Falcons were 13-3 and he started every game at left tackle.
“It was cool to have that unit, with Harvey and the guys,” Baker said. “We were really close friends. We kind of helped each other when one guy wasn’t feeling too great. We were able to support each other back them.”
Baker started the first six games last season but struggled mightily. He had in-season back surgery and was inactive for the next three games.
Upon his return, Will Svitek remained the starter, and Baker shifted to a backup role. He gave up five sacks last season, according to Stats Inc. But the lowest point of the season came against Carolina on Dec. 11.
As a reserve, Baker had to play some guard. He was playing right guard when Carolina defensive lineman Antwan Applewhite beat Baker on a powerful inside move for a sack and a safety. (Video: Click here)
Baker contends that he has put last season in his rearview mirror.
“Man, it was just tough,” Baker said. “Just to come out after the lockout and not knowing where your body was at, and then just kind of getting thrown into it. I had a couple of terrible games early on, and that really didn’t help either. Then, having some back issues again, it was really, mentally, it was just a roller coaster.”
Despite his shaky play last season, the Falcons have stood steadfastly behind Baker, who has returned to his status as the No. 1 left tackle this offseason after having an additional surgery.
When he was drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft, the Falcons envisioned a left tackle who would protect quarterback Matt Ryan’s blind side for the next decade.
The jury is still out on Baker, whom the Falcons believe had strong seasons in 2009 (six sacks allowed) and 2010 (11.5 sacks allowed). He is in the last year of his five-year, $13.5 million contract. Baker must return to form to secure his long-term future with the team or be ready to enter free agency.
“This is an important year for Sam, as we all know,” Falcons general manager Thom-as Dimitroff said. “I have confidence that Sam is going to come back and be a good left tackle for us.”
The team attributes most of Baker’s woes to his injuries.
“Sam is coming back in very good shape,” Dimitroff said. “He physically looks good. He’s been working hard in the offseason. His focus is to come back and win that left-tackle job and continue to help us win games as he has many times over the last four seasons.”
With Dahl playing for the Rams, Baker leaned on teammates Todd McClure, Justin Blalock and Tyson Clabo to help him through last season.
“There are a lot of guys in that locker room that really care about you and love football,” Baker said. “They were able to help me.”
Svitek, who started 10 games and was solid, appears to be the backup plan. The Falcons drafted tackle Lamar Holmes in the third round, but rarely do players drafted so late come into the NFL and start at left tackle. Also, Holmes has a broken toe and will not practice until the start of training camp.
So, the left-tackle spot appears to be Baker’s to win. The Falcons clearly are counting on him bouncing back.
“Unfortunately, he has been challenged with some of the injury situations,” Dimitroff said. “But Sam is a resilient guy, as per his injuries. There are certain times when you are faced with injury, and we had to play someone else in that spot.”
Despite the contract situation, Baker said he doesn’t feel any added pressure.
“There is always that,” Baker said. “They are always looking to replace somebody. There is always competition. It’s the NFL, and everybody is looking for a job.”
Baker acknowledged battling through some confidence issues last season. The Falcons hope that a new approach from offensive line coach Pat Hill will help restore Baker’s ferociousness.
Hill, who spent the past 15 years as the head coach at Fresno State, has known Baker since his high school days.
“He has great athletic ability,” Hill said. “I knew Sam coming out of high school and out of [USC]. From playing against him and watching him, I know the athletic ability is there. I’m excited about working with him.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith wants to see the old Baker, too.
“Playing left tackle in this league is not an easy job,” Smith said.
“You are protecting the backside of the quarterback, and for the majority of the time they are facing the top pass rushers. Most right defensive ends are the guys that have the skill-set to rush the passer.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog