FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Michael Turner used to be Mr. Reliable for the Atlanta Falcons.
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 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 at all 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 what he did his first four seasons in Atlanta.
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.”
With only one year left on his contract, Turner’s tenure in Atlanta could be winding down.
It’s certainly not farfetched to envision the Falcons going after another running back – perhaps in the draft – to pair with Rodgers.
But Ryan, for one, believes that Turner still has some effective days ahead of him.
“Mike has been a great player here for a long time,” Ryan said. “He’s still had some unbelievable runs this year. He’s just not done it as routinely as he’s done it in the past. That can be for a lot of different reasons.”
Smith agreed, stressing that Atlanta’s troubles running the ball – especially in short-yardage situations – aren’t entirely the fault of Turner. The Falcons rank a dismal 28th in rushing, averaging just under 87 yards per outing.
“I don’t think there’s a marketable difference in terms of what Mike has been able to do,” the coach said. “We’ve just been very inconsistent running the football. When we’ve had to run it, we’ve been able to run the football. But we’ve been inconsistent in blocking and in executing the run game. I think that’s one of the reasons our numbers are down.”
For now, there’s no going back to the way things used to be.
“We’re in transition right now,” Turner said. “People are used to the way we did things in the old days here. But it’s new now. Everybody needs to adjust. Not just me. Everybody.”