By far one of the absolute best running backs in the National Football League in 2008 was Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner. In fact, Turner finished behind only Adrian Peterson for most rushing yards 1699 and 17 touchdowns throughout the entire league. Perhaps no other single player deserves more credit than Turner for the magical season and turnaround in 2008, going from 4 wins in 2007 to 11 wins in 2008, a playoff berth, and finishing only one game behind NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers. The story is a well-known one, where Thomas Dimitroff made the biggest free agent strike in securing the rights to Turner and grabbing the best running back on the market in 2008, well before he had a magnificent rookie draft. Possibly the main reason he was named 2008 General Manager of the Year, for its hard to argue that Matt Ryan would’ve become the 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year without Michael Turner and the offensive line. Not only had Turner become an All-Pro in his first year as a starter, but he quickly became a fan favorite and a face of the newly-redone franchise. Expectations were justly high as the Falcons rolled into the 2009 season, expecting to build on the huge momentum they built, heavily on the broad shoulders of #33 and the running game. Injuries, low O-Line production, and a fairly non-existent running game were some of several reasons the Falcons didn’t make the playoffs in 2009. Injuries aside, is Michael Turner on the slide to 30+ mediocrity or was it a one year blip? Let’s get to it……..
Rumors were rampant that Turner showed to training heavily out of shape and overweight. Some thought it might be a point of concern, but many believed that he would be ready when the Falcons opened against the Dolphins in the Dome for the start of the season. Even though The Burner had a few good games in the first half of the season (105 yds/1 TD vs. CAR and 97 yds/3 TDs vs. SF), in general he started very slow (MIA-65 yds, NE-56 yds, CHI-30 yds, DAL-50 yds). The Falcons running back looked sluggish hitting the holes and was easily tripped up in the backfield, failing to ever get any rhythm or strong showing early in the season. Was is it Turner’s or the O-Line’s fault? Although very difficult to tell, Turner looked less than quick or decisive when getting the ball early on. After looking less than stellar and getting poor reviews by fans, the Falcons RB turned it on when they played the undefeated Saints in the Superdome, racking up 151 yards and a touchdown. Turner found his mojo in consecutive weeks running for 166 yards against the Redskins and looking like the Pro Bowler of 2008. After blitzing the Panthers for 111 yards in the first half, #33 sustained a high ankle sprain that essentially ended the season for the running back. Even though he tried going on the bum wheel a couple more times against the Bucs and Jets, The Burner could never recover from the tough and nagging injury.
Was Turner’s low production early on due to his lack of preparation or the weaker play of the offensive line? Very hard to tell since one counts on the other to look good and it’s much harder to judge the OL than the running back. On one hand the offensive lineman were pretty poorly ranked according to ProFootballFocus.com, with the exception of Harvey Dahl and Todd McClure. The easiest cop-out answer is that it was probably a little of both, but Turner definitely looked slow hitting the holes and its fairly easy to say that he wasn’t up to his former playing style. #33 looked sluggish and indecisive early on, but surely turned it on when they played the undefeated Saints and he seemed to get his momentum back before the big injury in Carolina.
From ProFootballFocus.com, Michael Turner in 2009
Snaps – 349
Overall Comprehensive RB Ranking – Tied for 12th (4.8 Rating)
Rush Rank – Tied 18th (3.2 Rating)
Rushing Yards – 871
Yards Per Carry – 4.9
Rush TDs – 10
Pass Rank – Tied 41st (-1.0 Rating)
Block Rank – 11th (2.6 Rating)
Yards After Contact per Attempt – Tied for 3rd (3.3 Average)
Fumbles – Tied for 56th (out of 63 – 4 Fumbles)
Offensive Line Run Block Ratings
Sam Baker – Ranked 55th (-11.7 Rating)
Will Svitek – Ranked 40th (-2.1 Rating)
Justin Blalock – Ranked 73rd (-13.0)
Todd McClure – Ranked 11th (+10.3 Rating)
Harvey Dahl – Ranked 25th (+2.9 Rating)
Quinn Ojinnaka – Ranked 56th (-4.4 Rating)
Tyson Clabo – Ranked 29th (-0.3 Rating)
Garrett Reynolds – N/A
It’s a well known fact that even the best running backs in the NFL simply wear down the closer they get to 30. Its probably just a given number, but for some reason it does bare out to be pretty true. A look at all the best running backs in recent history (Ladanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, Larry Johnson, Edgerrin James to name a few) have all had dramatic dropoffs when they approach the age of 30. Michael Turner is 28 years of age and had a breakout year in 2008 where everything came together. He was overworked that year and may not have many great seasons left in him. He came back in 2009 obviously out of shape and it showed in the beginning of the season. He did regain his Pro Bowl form, but quickly got a serious injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season. There’s no doubt that the offense if built around Turner and he has to prove that 2008 wasn’t a fluke. Jason Snelling came in and did very well behind the same offensive line that Turner ran behind. Snelling proved that he’s a huge commodity for the Falcons with Turner creeping towards 30 and having a pretty down and injury riddled year. Yes, Turner was a backup while in San Diego and he could easily come back to have a stellar season, but the close he ticks the 30 years old, the more that reality says the Falcons will soon need another and younger franchise back.
Granted, Turner may have not been the stellar running back he was in 2008, but he found his old form around mid-season right before he got hurt. It also has to be mentioned that Turner ran up against a much harder schedule and was very much hampered by extremely predictable play-calling under the helm offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Defenses were able to load 8 and even 9 players in the box to stop Turner, knowing there would be a run play on 1st and 2nd down. After having a year of tape to watch on Turner under Mularkey, defenses could easily key in on stopping the run early in the downs and dropping back for coverage on 3rd and long. It is true that #33 may not have held up his end of the bargain by not running strong and decisive early on, but he regained his stellar form rolling up 428 yards in 10 quarters before the high ankle sprain. Even though the injury was most likely a season ender, he tried to tough it out and come back several times the rest of the year and even though he couldn’t make it back, it showed his true leadership and the reason he’s a major cog in the heart and soul of the team. He is 28 years old, but he doesn’t have the history of the traditional running back where he’s taken a pounding pretty much from day one. He was a backup for his entire career up until 2008, so the 30 year old running back curse likely doesn’t apply to Turner. That being said, the Falcons do need to take the load off of Turner and incorporate Snelling and oft-injured Jerious Norwood into the mix more. The NFL is increasingly becoming a two running back league, and in some cases a three back league. Mike Mularkey also bears responsibility in putting Turner in situations where he can be more successful. The Burner showed up lean, fit, and ready to prove that he is without a doubt one of the best running backs in the NFL. Anything more than an off year? Not even close.
-What’s your thoughts on Michael Turner: one off year or reason for concern?
-Did The Burner share a large part for his low production early on?
-Who was mainly to blame: Turner, O-Line, Mularkey, or combination?
-Is #33 running out of good years, or plenty left in tank?
-What kind of load should Turner get?