Samuel fitting in with Falcons
Cornerback feels wanted in Atlanta, where his swagger is appreciated
Originally Published: August 2, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- "How my boys looking over there in Philly?"
It was barely four minutes into a 20-minute interview, and Asante Samuel's curiosity -- or was it ego? -- had gotten the better of him. He is happily an Atlanta Falcon now, courtesy of a pre-draft trade in April that netted the Eagles only a seventh-round pick, but a part of Samuel still cares about Philadelphia. He frequently interacts with Eagles fans, and with former teammates, on Twitter. And he chirped about the team to me.
"Seems like I left, and things started to go downhill," Samuel said. "[Team president] Joe [Banner] left. What's going on? Maybe they should hire me in the front office over there somewhere [to] keep everything together."
It was Samuel being Samuel. Brash. Indignant. Cocky. Unafraid.
Those qualities might have doomed Samuel in Philadelphia, but coupled with Samuel's ability to read opposing quarterbacks and come up with timely interceptions, they are exactly why the Falcons traded for the 31-year-old cornerback.
After losing in the first round of the playoffs three of the past four years, including once at home after a bye week, Atlanta needed some swagger. It needed someone to instill confidence in the younger defensive players, to inject life into practice and to bring the experience only a two-time Super Bowl winner can.
Samuel and linebacker Chris Hope are the only players on the Falcons roster with Super Bowl experience. With head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan entering their fifth seasons, with two new coordinators in Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, and with Samuel, Atlanta hopes that will change this season.
Samuel certainly has found a soft landing spot after a tumultuous 2011 season in Philadelphia, where he was the subject of constant trade rumors. He rightfully felt like the odd man out after the Eagles added fellow cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie last offseason.
He erupted after the trade deadline passed last fall with no deal, saying of Banner and general manager Howie Roseman, "You think they're upstairs playing fantasy football with the owner's money?" And he blamed the coaches, from Andy Reid on down, for not being able to make the cornerback trio work on the field at the same time.
Of course, Samuel feels no such animosity in Atlanta. He is reunited with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who was New England's director of college scouting when the Patriots drafted Samuel out of Central Florida in the fourth round in 2003. Samuel has developed a bond with Ryan, who has picked Samuel's brain about how Samuel was able to intercept him three times in four games when Samuel was an Eagle. And he feels appreciated, which is important to a player with a sizable chip on his shoulder.
"It's kind of a relief because you don't want to be where you're not wanted," Samuel said, sitting at a table after the Falcons' walk-through Wednesday morning. "I want to be appreciated for what I can do. I know my production speaks for itself. Like I say, over the years in Philly, nobody did what I did over there. You make your bed, you lay in it. I made my bed, I'm laying in it. They made their bed, they laying in it. So we'll see how it goes."
In four seasons in Philadelphia, Samuel had 23 interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. He is just the third Eagles player with seven interceptions in consecutive seasons, but he earned a reputation from shying away from contact and, more specifically, not tackling.
But Samuel is a ball hawk, with 52 career interceptions, including the playoffs. His 45 regular-season interceptions are second to only Ed Reed's since 2003, and his four postseason interception returns for touchdowns are the most in NFL history.
For Atlanta, Samuel likely will man his typical spot on the left side, with Brent Grimes on the right. Dunta Robinson, a starter on the outside the past few seasons, will play predominantly as the nickel corner, a position the hard-hitting Robinson prefers. But Smith said he wouldn't hesitate to move Samuel inside or have him shadow an opponent's best receiver.
"Having Asante, having Dunta and having Brent, it gives us a lot of options," Smith said.
Smith also said he anticipates in Nolan's system that Atlanta will use five defensive backs upward of 60 percent of the time, and with the flexibility of the three corners, he hopes the Falcons' defense will be more effective getting off the field on third down.
"Defensive scoring over the last four years, we've been one of the top five teams," Smith said. "Third-down efficiency, we've not played it as well as we need to, and that's one of the things that Mike is so strong at. So I think not only those three corners will allow us to be more multiple, but we're going to be more multiple as a defense than what we've been in the past."
Although the Falcons' defense might look a little different, Samuel won't. He was his usual chirpy self on Wednesday, encouraging his teammates, talking smack and having fun. When safety Shann Schillinger, a sixth-round pick out of Montana in 2010, picked off Ryan, Samuel ran from one sideline across the field, dancing and jawing the whole way, to congratulate him.
"You're going to get a penalty for excessive celebration," Smith said to Samuel.
"Every time you pick it, I'm going to get a $20,000 fine," Samuel said to Schillinger, "and you're going to pay it."
About Samuel, one team official said, "He's got even Shann Schillinger believing he can play."
Samuel is adamant that he still can play. He says he hasn't lost a step, and he is just as adamant that he will have a bust in Canton, Ohio. Time will tell.
But there is no doubt that Samuel is the best cornerback the Falcons have had since Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. He will make a difference. Samuel is motivated by many things, including a desire to prove the Eagles wrong and show that a three-cornerback system can work.
"You've got different coaches," Samuel said. "This coach knows how to handle the situation differently. You see who handles it right."
"Will it work?" Robinson said. "Yes. Because I'm in my ninth year, Asante's in his 10th year, Grimes is probably in his sixth or seventh year. The only thing left to prove is to win, and that's the main goal, no matter which guy's out on the field."
Samuel will be on the field. He knows his role. And in Atlanta, he is finally happy, even if Philly -- and an Oct. 28 date with the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field -- is never too far from his mind.
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.