Abraham suddenly finds himself in strange role: leader

John Abraham is leaning on this pad, but this season most of the Falcons' defense will be leaning on him. (Curtis Compton/compton@ajc.com)

Here's John Abraham leaning on a pad, but the Falcons' defense this season will be leaning on him. (Curtis Compton/compton@ajc.com)

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.

53 comments Add your comment

Brandon from Warner Robins

August 27th, 2009
3:20 pm

good work, Jeff.

C. Tampa Ironworse

August 27th, 2009
3:24 pm

Good to see that Abraham found some strange…I mean found himself in a strange position. Go Falcons!!!

Jeff Schultz

August 27th, 2009
3:31 pm

Thanks guys.

PMC

August 27th, 2009
3:32 pm

It is over looked how hard he comes back. He’s got one of the highest motors in the NFL when he’s right, he comes as hard on a play as anyone. Nice guy too off the field.

Barnacle Bill Bavasi

August 27th, 2009
3:34 pm

I think they got better, except for Foxworth leaving. Lawyer was really at the end, and, according to either Don Banks or Peter King, the guy was a locker room doo-doo stirrer. I’d never read that anywhere else. Were they wrong? Anyway, I like the potential of younger, faster, stronger. The DBs do concern me some, though.

David

August 27th, 2009
3:42 pm

Have the Falcons not considering bringing Lawyer back? He was an integral part of the defense last year, and last he heard, he wasn’t signed. I know William Moore has been impressive, but he’s a rookie, and learning a year under one of the better safeties over the last 7-8 years wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Hillbilly Deluxe

August 27th, 2009
3:47 pm

He doesn’t necessarily need to be a scream and holler guy. A good example and a well chosen word here and there are just as effective, sometimes more so. Abraham can do that.

Jeff Schultz

August 27th, 2009
3:53 pm

David — that’s not happening. Once a team decides to cut a veteran like Lawyer Milloy loose, it’s pretty much a one-way move.

newkid

August 27th, 2009
4:10 pm

Jeff, apparently Lofton has latched on to Peterson (as he should) in pursuit of maximizing his potential; a good thing indeed. Do you have any insight as to the extent to which JA98 has latched on to Abraham over the past couple of seasons? Is it silly to think that Abraham’s drive and motor can, through osmosis, be transplanted to JA98, or do these attributes already exist within JA98 and we’re just not seeing them?

Leek

August 27th, 2009
4:11 pm

I think william moore will take the starting job before the end of the year

Jeff Schultz

August 27th, 2009
4:13 pm

Newkid — If Jamaal has latched onto anybody or anything in the last 2 years, he hasn’t done it enough. That said, he says he’s had a good camp, feels confident and we’ll see how it all manifests itself.

MiltonDawg

August 27th, 2009
4:14 pm

Abraham should be a beast again this year. Stay healthy buddy and tell Anderson to start pulling his weight.

doggonit

August 27th, 2009
4:26 pm

Jeff- do you see Jamaal losing his starting job

Lil'Dave

August 27th, 2009
4:33 pm

Jeff S- I was listening to 790 the zone the other day when you were on the air and I’m not sure if i heard you correctly. But did you say you were from Gainesville, Ga? If so, that’s cool cause so am I. I live about 3 miles from the training camp right across the street from West Hall High School.

John is a cool guy from what I hear. My neighbor works at the liquor down the street and John use to come in there all the time when Bobby P first started coaching here. (Can’t blame him a bit..dude was a goober)

But it’s good he’s taken Sidbury under his wing! Our D will be ok this year it’ll be like John Wilkes Booth and sneak up behind you and blow your brains out! GO FALCONS!

Anchorman

August 27th, 2009
4:35 pm

This just in, former Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie had a strong smell of alcohol and Karen Sypher on him.

Brownie

August 27th, 2009
4:46 pm

One of the most interesting (and exciting) things JS printed was that only 2 guys total on defense are in their 30’s!! The offense is young and talented, just wait until the D catches up…how good are the Falcons gonna be for years to come?

I know everyone gets focused on the present – this year, and I’ll think they’ll be better. But regardless of their record in ‘09, the future could be dominant in every phase of the game.

Guys like Abe, Peterson and Gonzo can look at the next couple of years as their last chance for a ring…and that usually means motivated leadership (either vocal or by example) from them. Should be interesting.

Stirg d'Nahsif

August 27th, 2009
4:49 pm

A leader shows up, when its not mandated. A leader is the first to arrive and the last one to leave. A leader does not skip OTA and mini-camps to perform their own individual “core maintenance activities”. A leader is vocal and stern; leaders do not describe themselves as “nonchalant”.

I reviewed Abraham’s sack total in 2008-’09 (16.5). I discovered that he had multiple sacks against teams with a combined win-loss total of 7-41 (Detroit, Oakland and Kansas City). In two games with Carolina and New Orleans, each, Abe only had one sack with both teams. Old-Abe had no (that means zero) sacks with Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Rams and Chargers (that assist does not count, with me).

Panthers 1.0 (2-games)
Bears 0.0
Broncos 0.0
Lions 3.0
Packers 1.0
Chiefs 2.0
Vikings 1.0
Saints 1.0 (2-games)
Raiders 3.0
Eagles 0.0
Chargers 0.5
Rams 0.0
Buccaneers 4.0 (2-games)

These stats indicate to me that Abraham’s sack total is somewhat exaggerated. Impress me with sacks against legitimate contenders. From the list above, we play the likes of Philadelphia, Chicago, Tampa Bay (2), New Orleans (2) and Carolina (2), this coming regular season. We also face New England, Miami, New York (Giants and Jets). Call me a hater but I don’t see Old-Abe having multiple sack totals against any of these teams (they’ll adjust). Maybe a defensive leader should come from the linebacker corps or the defensive backfield. Mike Peterson would make an outstanding veteran leader (which he has already exemplified). He shows up for non-mandatory workouts, camps, meetings and practices. Peterson is vocal and backs his talk with a strong work ethic. Coach Smith attempted to throw Peterson into the “over-30″ club, which would give Peterson the opportunity to be excused from certain work-outs and a rigorous practice. Peterson elected to decline the invitation and participated in ALL activities. His reply was simple: “I’m not over 30.”

Life Long Bird

August 27th, 2009
5:03 pm

great comments from “fish and grits” pretty clever. Do you think there has been any talk about making these guys with the dreds cut their hair? I must admit I cannot stand the look, but watch the games and see how many times the helmets fly off of the guys with the long dreds. Mike Peterson’s helmet must have come off three times in the first half last week. Just a thought but I do not want my defenders, or Norwood for that matter, running around without a helmet.

Alan

August 27th, 2009
5:05 pm

Wake up Falcon Fans and compare all the chatter to last year and the offense, if you haven’t noticed, we have a new group of coaches that have proven that they can overcome adversity, this year the defense will explode on the scene as the offense did last year. GO FALCONS !!!!!

DamYankee

August 27th, 2009
5:22 pm

I’m so glad Abe’s not “a Ray Lewis type”, Lewis’ leadership skills mostly consist of chest-thumping, “look at me, ain’t I BAD”, and since the incident in ATL when someone in his posse killed a man and he “found Jesus”, kneeling on the sideline and pointing heavenward. I hate when they do that! I’d much rather a MAN lead by example and answer questions when asked than speechify and call out his teammates in public.

GT GRAD

August 27th, 2009
5:22 pm

I am a huge fan of John Abraham; HOWEVER, if he were a true leader, he would have been at all of the OTA’s, Rookie Practices and other events to assist his teammates even if he was simply hanging out in street clothes and providing verbal advice and/or individual encouragement. He is obviously a leader because of his age, experience and consistent production. I would like to see him be more assertive or aggressive with regard to helping his teammates get better…..I think this is what the coaches are asking him to do as well.

If our defense plays well, we will have a great year in 2009 (even with a much tougher schedule)!

Stirg d'Nahsif

August 27th, 2009
5:29 pm

Its “dreads”, Life Long Bird; and thanks. Yes, I must admit, I wasn’t a very big fan of Mark Gatineau’s look either. Who knows? Maybe, eventually, they’ll address the long hair out-of-the-helmet look.

DamYankee

August 27th, 2009
5:45 pm

I suspect a lot of these “dreads” are actually weaves – it took me 5 years to grow hair that long in the ’60’s, how can a guy go from a buzzcut to 2′ long dreads in less than 2 years? Is it a penalty if a tackler runs a guy down & tackles him by the hair? It shouldn’t be, just part of the uniform, right?

Jesse Tuggle

August 27th, 2009
5:55 pm

Nice article, Would love to see a article about norwood or finn , two of my favorite players.(Thanks for not saying the V*cK or Fav*E words

Jeff Schultz

August 27th, 2009
6:32 pm

Lil Dave – Sorry, you definitely heard wrong. I’m originally from Los Angeles.

Stirg – you’re being a little harsh with the sack breakdown. Obviously bigger numbers are going to be accumulated against poorer teams. I’m guessing you can take any pass rusher in the NFL and break it down similarly. Here’s what I look at: 6 sacks in 6 divisional games.

DL

August 27th, 2009
6:36 pm

Lil-Dave, that was one funny ass analogy! LMFAO! damn, boy I can’t stop laughing.

DL

August 27th, 2009
6:43 pm

Hey Jeff-I knew it! You’re from East L.A. aren’t you! Welcome to Atlanta ESE!!!!

Singletary

August 27th, 2009
6:44 pm

Great scoop on Peterson from Stirg. Gotta like MP, making sure he’s not cut from another team. Overall, great article Jeff. I noticed that the retro wear picture was Abraham, MR2 & Burner. I thought that really was a great shot of three of our best players… though I’m most enraptured with BBMDC. Wow. Maybe the photo is the coaches’ way of telling him he’s the most important defender … and play like it.

SPS

August 27th, 2009
6:45 pm

Stirg, in fairness, you should also note his first game in a Falcon’s uniform. He almost single handedly destroyed Carolina that day. That was a huge game against a division rival, and he showed up big. Unfortunately, his injury near the end of that game caused the rest of his season to be disappointing.

DamYankee

August 27th, 2009
6:56 pm

Speaking of PTI – Jeff, you need to talk to your agent. How did Kornheiser get that job? You’re funnier AND better looking! (Another left-handed compliment.)

Stirg d'Nahsif

August 27th, 2009
6:59 pm

Good point, Mr. Schultz; but four of those six divisional games, he totaled only two sacks (one with New Orleans, one with Carolina). Again (you’re actually proving my point), he produced multiple sacks against a non-playoff, mediocre team. I don’t recall any of Tampa Bay’s offensive linemen going to the (a) pro-bowl; and neither Donald Penn nor Jeremy Trueblood (offensive tackles) strikes fear in any defender’s hearts.

Back to the question at hand, though. You presented, “is Abraham a leader?” It is interesting that you would select the single subject of “sack totals” that I presented, to argue my claim. Why not address his absence from team activities or his description of himself as “nonchalant”? I got a better question (as an answer to your question). With 16.5 sacks, why wasn’t Abraham selected for the Pro-Bowl? I haven’t researched it, yet, but I do believe that most leaders are also pro-bowlers.

Howard

August 27th, 2009
7:20 pm

Jeff…goo dcolumn…hey, what did you think about former UK coach Billie Gillespie and DUI?? Boy in the Bluegrass State, the “hits just keep on coming.”

Howard

August 27th, 2009
7:22 pm

Jeff… good column…had to resend this one…cannot believe those typos…folks might think I had graduated from the Phil Fulmer English Composition Class. What about Gillespie?? Kentucky is surely obtaining a great rep…no??

DrJ

August 27th, 2009
7:30 pm

LLB makes a great point about helmets coming off. The Falcon staff needs to correct this. Don’t know if the players like it because it gives them some TV face-time, or not, but all kinds of bad things happen when bodies and cleats are flying around. All it takes is a good whack to the head and a concussion, followed by an easier concussion the next time and the guy’s career is over.

Stirg d'Nahsif

August 27th, 2009
7:49 pm

Actually, DrJ, I think LLB’s intention was sarcasm. Since it is up for discussion, what’d suppose The Falcon staff do to correct (what)? What does hair have to do with playing the game of football? I’ve noted some players with bald heads lose their lids. What is the point?

Sonny Clusters

August 27th, 2009
8:01 pm

We was thinking here we was talking about Chipper’s hurt thumb and now we got one of our own. Bad thumbs are no good for baseball. Most ballplayers has opposable thumbs and that helps with catching. When we find out more about Jeff’s thumb we’ll let you know.

Sonny Clusters

August 27th, 2009
8:25 pm

We was thinking it is a mistake to let Chipper play on a wet field. He may end up with a boo-boo of his own. When we was playing ball together we was always careful to avoid injury and we would never put old people out on slick sidewalks.

The Grinch

August 27th, 2009
8:25 pm

Thumbs are not to be trifled with.

SPS, in that game you mentioned we started four guys on the d-line who all had double digit sacks in a season at some point (Abe, Coleman, Jackson and Kearney), the first time that happened in NFL history. That was one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen; too bad it was derailed by that injury.

Sonny Clusters

August 27th, 2009
8:29 pm

Jeff, we was reading you are from L.A. What gang was you in?

Sonny Clusters

August 27th, 2009
8:34 pm

We was thinking, that’s a curious way to talk . . . “thumbs are not to be trifled with”. We was always using our thumbs when we called people out on the bases and when we was at the Dairy Queen we’s stick in a thumb and pull out a bunch of cookie dough. Now, mostly we use our thumbs for texting with Jeff. We was wondering how he’s going to answer?

DamYankee

August 27th, 2009
8:36 pm

Sonny, you da man!

Jeff Bagwell?????

August 27th, 2009
8:59 pm

Dude, changing the subject, but former Astro Jeff Bagwell was in the booth for the Little League baseball game (Warner Robins) tonight… he’s got to be down to 160 lb… either he has a serious disease that has caused MASSIVE weight loss or when taking the needle out of his a**, he deflated like a balloon. His appearance tonight will have to hit youtube!

observor

August 27th, 2009
9:37 pm

Now this is good work Jeff. I actually got something out of this as opposed to the easy Vick pieces.

Ed-Covington

August 27th, 2009
10:15 pm

I’m a white guy, and I think the dreadlocks, weaves or whatever you call them look cool: Houston, MP, Norwood, etc. Maybe Matty Ice should get a weave, too.
However, I agree that there seem to be an awful lot of players getting their helmets knocked off, both this season and last; and not just the Falcons. Need to tighten those chin straps, men.

Ed-Covington

August 27th, 2009
10:20 pm

My God! How can they allow instant replay in an exhibition (excuse me: preseason) game!? This Tampa-Miami game just might be over in time for me to watch the Falcon game Saturday night!

Ed-Covington

August 27th, 2009
10:25 pm

Love Sidbury’s effort and the results, but did anyone else notice his “love handles”? I thought he was supposed to be lean & mean.
GO BIRDS!!

Ed-Covington

August 27th, 2009
10:31 pm

Well. Jeff; looks like it’s just you and me.

Sonny Clusters

August 27th, 2009
10:38 pm

Bad thumbs can make for some bad baseball. Look at Chipper. That boy’s a mess. We was thinking maybe it’s his thumbs. That, and the new glove. When we was playing ball we would always keep our thumb in the glove so it wouldn’t get hurt. When we was at bat we would always try to not let the ball hit us in the thumbs. When we was healthy in the thumbs we was winning enough to be state championship.

long time falcon

August 27th, 2009
10:39 pm

Do some of you guys even watch falcon football? Bring back milloy? Why? Erik Coleman has been moved to the starting strong safety spot and he is a huge upgrade over the old and slow milloy. Decoud is now the starting free safety. With coleman, decoud, and william moore the falcons are much more athletic and versatile at the safety position.

FalcD

August 28th, 2009
10:39 am

Stirg d’Nahsif:
You make good points but you pointed out that he had fewer sacks on good teams but you have to account that he had NO help from anyone else on the D. He had to do it by himself, Anderson was no help taking the pressure off of Abe. Because of that, smart opponents would stick an extra man on Abe. Getting penetration can be quite difficult as you can imagine but he was still able to pull a sack sometimes. Thats why its vital for Anderson or someone else to pull through and step it up on the pass rush.