FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Michael Turner used to be Mr. Reliable for the Atlanta Falcons.
Hand off the ball and watch him churn out the yards.
But the big back’s production is way down this season, a change of direction that was planned from the start but has been more pronounced than anyone expected. Even Turner conceded Wednesday he didn’t expect his carries to be reduced so significantly.
“It’s a mental challenge” he said. “But there’s not anything I can do about it. Just go out there and play my role, do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
To his credit, Turner hasn’t complained about having a lesser role in the offense, at least not publicly. But, at age 30, he scoffs at those who say he’s all washed up.
“I don’t feel any older,” he insisted. “I still feel fresh. I probably feel fresher that last year, actually.”
Even so, there’s no denying that Turner is no longer regarded as one of the NFL’s elite running backs. He’s on pace to gain about 900 yards, far off the what he did his first four seasons in Atlanta.
Turner rushed for a career-best 1,699 yards in 2008, and more than 1,300 yards each of the past two seasons. The only time he was held to less than 1,000 yards in Atlanta was 2009, when he missed five games and parts of two others with injuries.
Coach Mike Smith made it clear at the beginning of the year he wanted to reduce Turner’s workload, especially with a new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, coming on board.
The Falcons knew they had to do a better job taking advantage of their myriad weapons in the passing game: quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, not to mention Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez at tight end.
In addition, Atlanta wanted to expand the role of second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers, who at 5-foot-6 and 188 pounds is more of a darting, breakaway threat than the plodding Turner.
Still, Turner has admittedly been caught off guard to some degree. He’s averaging just over 14 carries a game, down from nearly 19 a year ago and far off the pace he set during his Atlanta debut in ’08, when he carried the ball a staggering 23.5 times per contest.
Rodgers has rushed for 295 yards, averaging 4.1 per carry, and he’s more of a threat as a receiver (43 catches, 327 yards).
Turner has rushed for 689 yards, but his yards per carry are down to 3.7 – and, more troubling, he’s averaged less than 3 yards in six games.
Turner always felt he was at his best when he ran the ball at least 20 times. Last week, he got it seven times for 14 yards in a 30-20 loss to Carolina.
“I think I get more of a rhythm” with more carries, Turner said. “Not just me, but the offensive line and the fullbacks, too.”
Despite Turner’s drop-off, the Falcons (11-2) have already clinched the NFC South and hope to move a step closer to home-field advantage when they host the New York Giants (8-5) on Sunday.
The success of the team has made his disappointing season – which also included a DUI arrest – a little easier to take.
“I’ve just got to go out there and grind,” Turner said. “One team, one goal. The main thing is winning a Super Bowl. This is the way the coaches feel is the best chance for us to win the Super Bowl.”