By now you've probably read and heard a lot of news and analysis that suggests Falcons running back Michael Turner is headed for a bad season. He's turned 30 years old. His coaches have come out and said they'd like to scale back his workload after he totaled over 300 carries for the third time in four seasons. His game trailed off last season as he struggled through five of his final six games. The Falcons have a speedy second-year rusher in Jacquizz Rodgers and a pass attack on the brink of exploding thanks to receiving dynamo Julio Jones.
Turner's read and heard it all too. And he's laughing.
"The way people talk, man, they just expect your body to just crumble," Turner told CBSSports.com, chuckling at the notion that turning 30 means his skills will deteriorate overnight. I hear a lot of talk about the way I finished the season off but I still finished third in the league in rushing. So what's everyone else doing? Why is there negative talk about me like I'm done and I'm finished? I still feel young, still feel fresh."
He should feel fresh. Turner might have turned 30 but he has just 1,479 career carries including the postseason. True, 1,214 of those carries have come in his last four seasons with the Falcons, but typically it takes a lot more than four years of regular work for a running back to crack. The whole idea that a fifth straight year of having a heavy workload being bad for a rusher isn't entirely valid and history proves it. Here's a look at how other big backs like Turner fared in their fifth seasons after getting a lot of work in the previous four.
|Player|| Four straight years |
of big carries
|Fifth season's stats|
|Jerome Bettis||'93-'96: 1,116 carries||'97: 375 carries, 1,665 yds, 7 TDs|
|Stephen Davis||'99-'02: 1,185 carries||'03: 318 carries, 1,444 yds, 8 TDs|
|Corey Dillon||'97-'00: 1,073 carries||'01: 340 carries, 1,315 yds, 10 TDs|
|Eddie George||'96-'99: 1,360 carries||'00: 403 carries, 1, 509 yds, 14 TDs|
|Steven Jackson||'05-'08: 1,090 carries||'09: 324 carries, 1,416 yds, 4 TDs|
|Edgerrin James||'99-'02: 1,184 carries||'03: 310 carries, 1,259 yds, 11 TDs|
|Jamal Lewis||'02-05: 1,199 carries||'06: 314 carries, 1,132 yds, 9 TDs|
|Ricky Williams||'99-'02: 1,197 carries||'03: 393 carries, 1,372 yds, 9 TDs|
|Maurice Jones-Drew||'08-'11: 1,151 carries||'12: ???|
|Michael Turner||'08-'11: 1,189 carries||'12: ???|
Many people will point to the way Turner's 2011 season ended and believe he wasn't fresh. Excluding a Week 17 drumming of the Buccaneers' bottom-ranked run defense where he ran wild, Turner totaled 321 yards on 99 carries (3.24 average) between Week 12 and the Wild Card Playoff game at the Giants with just one touchdown. In those games, Matt Ryan attempted at least 34 passes in all but one and there was at least one 100-yard receiver between Roddy White and Julio Jones. Ryan had to pass in some of those games because the Falcons fell behind. The team ultimately went 3-3 over that span.
Of course that means in the games before Week 11 the Falcons were 6-4 and Turner totaled 888 rush yards (1,012 total) and eight touchdowns to start his season. The detractors conveniently forget that. It's nothing to sneeze at and that's where Turner's focus is whenever anyone brings up the end of 2011.
"I can't remember who we played those last five or six games or so, but ... it all depends on the flow of the game how things work out," Turner said. "If a team jumps out with a big lead on us, of course we've got to start playing catch-up and start passing the ball downfield a little bit more. Can't control that. We want to run it and control the tempo for every game, that's every coach's dream, but sometimes it doesn't work your way. You've got to work through it, push through it and do what you can."
The flow of the game that Turner pointed out is important. If the Falcons' defense gets run over, it takes opportunities away from Turner much like it would nearly any running back given that situation. But a similar notion could help Turner in 2012: Once defenses realize that the Falcons' offense can throw at will because of White and Jones (not to mention Tony Gonzalez), their safeties and linebackers can't concentrate on stopping the run. And that's when Turner can chew up yards.
"[We're] just going to take what the defense gives us," Turner modestly said about succeeding when defenses focus on the pass and not the run. "We've got playmakers all across the board, so any one of us can be a threat to the defense. So whoever they decide to leave open, that guy's going to have a pretty good game."
As for the coaches saying they want to preserve Turner by limiting his carries, he's not sweating it because he's heard the exact same thing before.
"It's like every year it's been the same story over and over again," he said. "My first year starting I had like over 370 carries or something like that and that was a curse and guys don't come back and stuff like that. I don't listen to it. I just go out there and just do my job. I want to be a contributor the same amount as I've been in years past. I don't feel that I am getting weaker or can't handle the workload anymore. We did add some more weapons to this offense, obviously, but I'm going to prepare like every year since I first got here.
"I don't feel like [I need fewer carries] at all. Not at all."
To prove that it might be all talk, Turner confirmed he's been getting the same amount of work in training camp as he has in the past. If there was a slowdown coming with Jacquizz Rodgers taking over some touches, it might not play out that way.
Turner should be credited for being a good teammate as well. With all the commotion about his future and Rodgers cutting into his time, Turner is still excited for what the second-year speedster brings to the table.
"Quizz is looking great," Turner said. "Last year, like all rookies, had a disadvantage of not having the OTAs and things like that, you had to go straight to training camp and learn everything on the run. He's more comfortable this year, you can tell by the way he's practicing and the way he's carrying himself around the facility and things like that. He's ready to roll and he's ready for games to start to show everybody what he's got."
What seems likely is Rodgers taking some work away from Turner. Enough to keep him under 300 carries on the season? Yes, but it shouldn't be drastic unless Turner gets hurt along the way.
Here's why: The Falcons don't care about our Fantasy teams, they care about winning. Since Turner arrived -- and including the postseason -- the team is a ridiculous 27-3 when Turner gets at least 20 carries. When he has between 15 and 19 carries, a range he might fall into more often in 2012, the Falcons have gone 10-11 over four years but 8-5 over the last two seasons. With 14 carries or fewer for Turner, the Falcons are 4-7 including 0-4 last season. Granted, when the Falcons aim to grind the clock toward the end of games Turner will load up on carries, but it's not like he was sparsely used until the fourth quarter in those situations -- he was a factor in all four quarters. Rodgers will pitch in to help the Falcons' run game thrive, but Turner should be the genesis of their rushing numbers and thus should translate into some wins for Atlanta.
Another point: The Falcons play only one Top-10 run defense from 2011 (the Cowboys) and have four games against top-half run defenses (the Eagles and the Saints twice with that Cowboys matchup). The matchups are just as juicy for the passing game (two Top 10 pass defenses, three top-half pass defenses) but what's been the common thread in the Falcons' wins? Rushes. If the Falcons get the ball late, guess who's going to carry it.
Turner's excited about the passing game opening things up for him,. He's of the belief his offensive line will be improved ("They want to get that stigma that they're a bad offensive line off of them," he said) and that the new up-tempo Falcons offense will help him just as much as it will help the Falcons' other offensive studs.
But Turner ultimately is excited about proving people wrong. His laughs are replaced with a determined tone. With a track record of success to build off of, he should make believers out of detractors this year and extend his streak of 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons.
"My name's been up there on the charts every year and guys just write me off. They're giving up on me before they've given a sign, really," he said. "I could see it if I had like 800 yards rushing or something last year, but I was still in double-digits in touchdowns, my yards per carry went up from the previous year, I even had more catches out of the backfield last year. I just don't get what everyone's looking at as far as the press and stuff, all the negative talk about what I'm doing on the football field. I see the stats all the time. If I'm improving in certain areas, then I don't see what the big fuss is about me losing my step.
"It definitely frustrates me. I'm not going to lie. But I'm just going to let them keep talking and I'm going to keep playing and keep putting up numbers."