It’s not a secret that I don’t think too highly of Michael Turner’s future with the Falcons. All off-season long, I’ve advocated that I think the team will be better off without him than with him. But it’s clear at this point that the Falcons brass disagree with me. And because of that, Turner’s production in 2012 will be a key to the team’s success.
Turner’s production has been on a fairly steady decline in recent years. Although last year he did see a jump in yards per carry, I attribute much of that to the season’s two bookend games against the Bears and Bucs where he averaged over 10 yards on a total of 27 carries. If you look at the other 14 games he played in where he totaled 274 carries for 1068 yards (3.9 avg), it mirrors almost exactly the season that Cedric Benson had last year (273 carries, 1067 yards, 3.9 avg). Benson is currently an unsigned free agent because most feel that he’s past his prime, coupled with his less than stellar production in the passing game, thus making him undeserving of a starting job. It’ll will be up to Turner this year to prove skeptics like myself wrong that he should not be in a similar boat.
Turner should get some help from what should be an upgraded offensive line. It’s no doubt that the drop-off in production up front played a part in Turner’s less than stellar production throughout the 2011 season. The question remains how much a part of it. If it was a huge part, then any improvements should be a huge positive for Turner.
Turner’s running skills have no doubt declined. He’s not as powerful or explosive a runner he once was. That decline is to be expected with age, as Father Time catches up with all running backs eventually. That lack of burst means that it takes him a bit longer to build speed and he needs to be able to get to the line, square his shoulders and run downhill, a skillset that he still possesses to a high degree. Thus, there needs to be more spacing and push that the offensive line must be able to create up front to make that possible. If this upgraded 2012 unit is able to do that then we can start to see a return of the old days where Turner could consistently gain yardage and be able to keep this offense on schedule. If not, then a lot more pressure will fall on the shoulders of Matt Ryan, who will be operating a brand new offense. Not to mention that pass protection still probably won’t be the strength of the new offensive line. And the Falcons are a team that have historically under Mike Smith operated best with a lead rather than playing catch-up. Turner’s ability to gain yards on early downs and early quarters will help allow that to happen.
The Falcons have publicly stated that they want to keep Turner on a “pitch count” i.e. limited how many reps he gets to keep him fresher down the stretch. Until his breakout performance against the Bucs in the season finale, Turner had averaged a mundane 56 yards and 3.3 yards per carry in the previous five games. Those are strong indicators of wear and tear catching up with him down the stretch. Fortunately for Turner, the Bucs managed to quit on Raheem Morris just in the nick of time. But that’s not a situation one can count on happening again. If the Falcons can keep him a lot fresher early in the season thanks to platooning him with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, they can hopefully eradicate that late season decline from repeating in 2012.
One of the key changes Falcon fans will be hoping to see is how new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter utilizes backups Snelling and Rodgers. Under Mike Mularkey, both players were over-glorified third down backs. In all four years that Mularkey coordinated the offense, the team made statements about trying to limit Turner’s carries and keep him fresher, but did not always succeed because of Mularkey’s historically poor ability to juggle a two-headed backfield. Koetter has had more success than Mularkey, utilizing both Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor to great effect in 2007. But in the years since then, he has largely relied on the one-back approach with MJD getting the bulk of the work, especially since Taylor departed after 2008.
Last year, Rodgers and Snelling combined for only about a quarter of the team’s rushing attempts by the tailback. And only about 15% of their combined offensive snaps involved running the football, compared to about 50% of Turner’s snaps. It will be interesting to see what if any significant changes Koetter will make in those regards. If the Falcons are more successful with maintaining Turner’s “pitch count” then you might expect Rodgers and Snelling to get at least a third if not close to half of the Falcons rushing attempts and a more even split between running and pass duties. That difference could be made up by giving Rodgers and/or Snelling at least 3 or so more carries per game that normally would be given to Turner. That is going to take discipline by the coaching staff, something that Mularkey did not apparently possess. Because it means that there may be instances where the team’s gut instinct might be to feed Turner (e.g. short-yardage), but they will purposefully have to keep him out of the game to give Rodgers and Snelling opportunities for the sake of the long-term plan for Turner. That is something that is easier said than done, which is one of the reasons why it’s understandable that the previous coordinator failed there.
Overall, even with my skepticism over how effective Turner will be on a game-to-game basis this year, I do expect him to rush for over 1000 yards. Improvements up front should help offset his reduced workload and hopefully keep his production consistent each week. Instead of having a handful of hot games surrounded by a sea of cold ones, we need to see a large body of warm in 2012. That is possible, and certainly will be a key to the Falcons success in 2012.