FLOWERY BRANCH – In their never-ending quest to spin a negative into a positive, football coaches often will punctuate their pep talks with the word, “opportunity.”
“Our left guard broke his leg. But you have an opportunity to be a starter for the first time since you left the Arena League.”
“We’re cutting you. But it’s only because this gives you the best opportunity for another team to pick you up.”
“We’re 2-11. But we have a great opportunity to win these last three games so I can save my job and convince my wife to not run off with Julio, the pool boy.”
So I submit this to John Abraham: You have an opportunity.
Abraham has long been known as one of the NFL’s top pass rushers. When he hasn’t been injured, his sack totals are consistently in double-digits, and he has reaffirmed that in his first three seasons as a Falcon. First year: seven starts, four sacks. Second and third years: 32 starts, 26 ½ sacks (a career-high 16 ½ last season).
The opportunity? Abraham acknowledges he never really has been known as a leader. It might be overstating things to suggest he has been known as selfish. But neither has he held a doctorate in nurturing.
But have you seen the Falcons’ defensive depth chart? Abraham (31) and Mike Peterson (33) are the only starters in their 30s. Seven starters are 26 or younger and will be entering their first, second or third NFL season.
Abraham needs to be there to lead them. Or maybe sit with them on the bench while the grownups get to go on the big roller coasters. He is nearly as important on the defensive side of the ball as Matt Ryan is on the offensive side. (Noteworthy: In the Falcons’ media guide, the section divider before the player biographies pictures only two players: Abraham and Ryan.)
Mike Smith has approached Abraham in the past about being a leader on defense, Abraham said. “He’s always asked me to help the younger guys. But it seems that [role] will be a little bigger now. You’ll definitely see me on the sideline, talking to players. I’ll definitely be more vocal, telling people certain things, small things.”
This hasn’t been his reputation. He hasn’t been a teaching, inspiring, locker-room-speech, scream-to-wake-up-the-guys-in-the huddle kind of teammate.
“People look at me and see that I do things a little more nonchalant,” he said. “It’s not like I don’t want to be around people or I don’t want them to get better. I want everybody around me to get better so we’ll be better. But I guess when I was younger I was a little more self-motivated. When you’re like that, I guess some people look at you like [you’re selfish]. But I’m looking forward to being more of a leader this year.
“I’m not a Ray Lewis type. I’m not going to scream – not unless somebody does something really stupid.”
May want to save his voice right now. Expectations are fairly low. “But that’s how it was last year, and we kept getting better,” he said. “We have a lot of players willing to learn. Let’s show people how good we can be.”
Wow. Right out of the “opportunity” handbook.
It was a difficult off-season. Abraham admits he “wasn’t happy,” when the Falcons failed to re-sign several of their veterans, particularly friend Lawyer Milloy. But he said he got over it relatively quickly. “I’m older now and I know it’s a business,” he said.
There was speculation that he might try to leverage the situation for more money. He missed some organized team workouts (which aren’t mandatory). Rumors circulated he would hold out of training camp. But Abraham denies that and said he missed some OTAs “just to rest my body.”
He has stayed relatively healthy the last two seasons, starting every game. When I mentioned that to him, he knocked on something. Core exercises have helped him avoid past hernia and groin injuries. He knows he had been tagged as being injury prone (missing half of his first season with the Falcons). But he said, “People never look at how I’ve always come back.”
One label dispelled. Here’s an opportunity to dispel another.