Michael Turner came out of Northern Illinois on the back of the high point of their program for the 2004 draft.
His measurables were good – a sub-4.5 40-yard dash in a 5-foot-10, 244-pound package and still only 21 at the time. He was a wrecking ball that could flat-out run basically.
The San Diego Chargers rolled the dice on him in the fifth round of 2004 with a mind to have a backup for LaDainian Tomlinson. Off the back of limited play time he flashed potential, including an 87-yard effort against Kansas City in his first full start as a rookie and midway through his sophomore year a 118-yard, one-touchdown game against Indianapolis.
In 2007, Chargers' general manager A.J.Smith was moved to offer him around the league for a mind-blowing first & third-round pick. Such was their evaluation of him at the time based of those cameo's.
Needless to say, there weren’t many offers and he signed a one-year, $2 million plus tender offer to remain a Charger.
In free agency with limited snaps and limited play time, but a growing portfolio of vignette performances, Turner entered the open market and quickly found himself a home with the Atlanta Falcons as one of Thomas Dimitroff’s first moves shortly after he turned 26.
Turner quickly repaid the favor by turning in a 22 carry, 220 yard, two touchdown performance on his debut, shattering the Falcons’ single game rushing record in the process.
Since then, Turner has gone on to flirt with league highs in carries and league rushing yardage:
Turner's career numbers.
Straight off the bat, i'm going to say that Turner is not dropping off a cliff or becoming fantasy redundant in 2012. Not yet. Only that his expectations need to be curbed as his role will be changing. The reasons? Two-fold; Dirk Koetter and Jacquizz Rodgers.
Let’s explore the context of the current situation in Atlanta.
•Quarterback Matt Ryan hasn’t taken the step forward that people were hoping for, for whatever reason.
•The fans weren’t happy with a perceived conservatism from former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
•Turner has 300-plus carries in three of his past four seasons and has just turned 30.
•Falcons expectations this year compared to those of last year after a blockbuster trade for Julio Jones and expectations of Ryan's next step are probably rather different.
So, Mularkey’s out, Koetter’s in. Same stuff, different day, perhaps?
Not for me. It’s a perception problem of Koetter’s. You think of him and you think of the Jacksonville offense: Run heavy, run first. Which is true up to a point, but with all due respect to our Jacksonville fans I think they’d be the first to agree that the Jaguars’ offense hasn’t had very many playmakers on their roster. They'd likely also be the very first to point out that any success that they were ever going to have with their roster would've been through the running game first and the passing game second. Which they've certainly done.
Koetter has been blamed (rightly or wrongly) for a number of failures in Jacksonville: an inability to build off David Garrard’s best ever season in Koetter’s first year, or to help progress the career of Blaine Gabbert, as well as conservative playcalling.
That might sound a bit like an all-too-familiar song to those in Atlanta who count themselves amongst Mularkey’s detractors. I’d actually go to bat for Koetter here, though. It’s really not that difficult and I’m surprised he’s being viewed by some sections of the Atlanta fans and press as a bad hire.
For a start, he did get the best out of Garrard.
What’s often forgotten in the following year is that after that first season of Garrard's banner year under Koetter they lost both their starting guards to Injured Reserve and that they also had their starting tackle tragically gunned down (14 bullets and paralyzed from the waist down for life).
Here are a list of the “weapons” (and I use the term in it's loosest possible sense) he's had to utilize to build a legitimate vertical offense:
Torry Holt (at 32 years old)
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d be fairly certain that between mercurial talent (which is being diplomatic at best ... ), lack of pro-caliber players, injuries, age and drug-related issues, there’s really not a whole lot to have worked with. Even before you get to some of the truly bad decisions made with quarterback personnel.
An offensive coordinator can work with what he’s got, but as much as they'd like miracles really aren't in their remit - and that's precisely what it would've taken to have produced a viable passing alternative in north Florida for the past half a decade.
Koetter is a perfect fit for the personnel in Atlanta.
About the only thing he’s missing is the more mobile sort of quarterback he prefers to work with, but I’d imagine that’s more than compensated for by the caliber of passer he could have in Ryan.
Koetter uses the run-and-play action to set up a deep passing game. It is to him what a multiple wide receiver base set is to Mike Martz. If you’re in points per reception leagues you won’t love a Koetter wide receiver, but if you get rewarded by long plays you probably will.
As you’ll see from the table I’ve put together to follow Koetter’s career as an offensive coordinator, certain things jump out ...
Koetter's OC career numbers.
Koetter the O.C. loves to:
•Use his backs. Period. Whether it's closer to a 2:1 or 5:3 split in terms of rush:pass, he'll run first to set thing up.
•He’s not adverse to having a Thunder and Lightning approach, a specialist do-it-all back or a platoon with a power back and a quarterback when it comes to running the ball. Where you see a yellow box in both rushing and receiving, it's the same player - be it Tommy Stowers, Mike Jones and Ronnell Kayhill at Missouri or Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville.
•Use his QB's to rush if he gets an opportunity. Those green boxes on the table? Those are not only the 3rd most prevalent rusher on his teams, they're also his QB's. He’s coached Akili Smith, Rudy Johnson, David Garrard, Tony Grazioli, Phil Johnson and Mike Hartsell. They all scrambled – some more than others – but over a 16-game season trending Koetter’s career it’s easily in excess of 50 rushing attempts per season so far.
•Involve his tight ends in the passing game, but doesn’t always feature them (third or fourth in targets)
•Use a vertical passing game, prefering to land the big punches rather than jab his way upfield when it comes to his receivers.
So what does all that mean for Turner?
Well, in a nutshell it’s both good and bad news. There are very strong similarities between the running back situation in Atlanta and that in Jacksonville when Koetter first arrived.
For one thing, there was an established featured – if aging – back already on the roster and a young guy envisioned as a relief/change of pace/third down back who had recently been added via the draft.
In Jacksonville, it was Fred Taylor and Jones-Drew. In Atlanta it’s Turner and Rodgers.
Taylor– Long-term featured running back, 31 years old
Turner – The featured running back in Atlanta, 30 years old
Jones-Drew – Second-round pick acquired the previous year (5-foot-7, 208 pounds)
Rodgers – Fifth-round pick acquired the previous year (5-foot-6, 196 pounds)
Koetter has a good offensive line, a good stable of backs to work with, a good quarterback who can and should improve – especially if given the keys to the no-huddle offense – and two wide receivers who are certainly legitimate NFL vertical threats. Something he was sorely lacking in Jacksonville.
He also has some pretty good blockers for screens and bubbles, a system Jones-Drew has excelled in as well as his under-rated ability to run North-South.
Potential Koetter/ATL play.
In the example above, youve got a 2WR:2RB:1TE personnel grouping: Roddy White is wide right at Split End, Julio Jones the flanker opposite him, Tony Gonzalez at Tight End and Michael Turner & Jacquizz rodgers in at Running Back (FB = Turner, TB = Jacquizz)
The first choice the defense has to make: Is the CB#2 on Julio Jones going to stay with him - and free the underneath up - or stay near the line of scrimmage in run support, hoping the Free Safety is going to cover Jones in his absence. Even if the OLB comes over to help him, they're still outnumbered 2:3 and the play should develop if the blocking players all execute. Gonzalez, Turner, LT versus OLB & CB).
The second choice has to be made by the Free Safety (FS). Does he go across to cover Jones (if the CB#2 stays in run support)? If he does, that leaves Roddy White in single coverage and thats a dangerous situation the Falcons have exploited time and time again. It's just the sort of vertical passing game Koetter loved setting up in college. Should the FS go across to double up on White, then Jones is home free - no CB & no FS cover.
No offensive play is fool proof - including this one - but it will give you an indication of what Koetter could be about and how he could utilise the potential in the Falcons offense; trying to set up single man coverage by using the run and screens to commit defenders. It's a system he's used for over 20yrs.
Now there is a point in fantasy football where past performances don't mean much and some indicators not a heckuva lot more, too. This year, the days of Turner being anywhere close to leading the league in carries have well and truly gone.
People can opine age or injury, but as you can see from his career he came into the league early and didn’t get any wear on his tires of any note until he was 26. If the average lifespan of a top 10 running back – all things, like injury being equal – is approximately 5-6 years, then as I’ve offered in previous forum threads it’s not a concern I share. My concern is Koetter and how he uses his back's.
He did it at Missouri … he did it at Boston College … he did it with Jacksonville. He'll certainly try to do it in Atlanta.
So what are we looking at in terms of carries?
Atlanta had 818 offensive plays with a split of 453-to-365 run-to-pass. I’d expect that to skew only slightly more in favor of the run. It’s not like Mularkey was a pass-centric guy anyway. With a pretty close 5-to-3 ratio anyway, we may as well call it 500-to-300 for the Falcons next year.
Perhaps, ultimately it’ll be head coach Mike Smith who will have the last word on any potential of a rally for Turner and his fantasy owners in 2012?
“We want to keep [Turner] as our feature back, but we need to make sure some of the other guys get carries as well … I think the thing we have to do as Michael gets a little older is to start putting him on a ‘pitch count’ in terms of the number of carries,” Smith said.
We can all prognosticate how those run plays will be carved up between Turner, Rodgers and Jason Snelling (and even Ryan I suspect will scramble more than he used to, though it certainly shouldn‘t ever be a feature) till the sun goes down in several different time zones. Feel free.
I wouldn't expect Rodgers to jump up to MJD's numbers next year. Jones-Drew had already had a year of 150 carries before Koetter landed in Jacksonville, which made his job alot easier. I'd expect that his near 60 touches and 20 recs will easily double and could even treble into the void left by Turner's role - If the projected amount of almost 500 carries for the Atlanta rushing game in 2012 is close to the mark.
Don't believe me though, here's the response to how Atlanta plan to resolve the scaling back of Turner's role:
“Jacquizz figures into that quite a bit. We drafted him to be a change-of-pace back and we found out very quickly that he’s a guy that is more than a change-of-pace back. Even though he’s short, he’s not little. He’s a guy we feel like we can integrate more into our offense.’’ said H.C. Mike Smith
In the right scheme I'm more than "bullish" about Rodger's prospects. Koetter's scheme is - at least on paper - a much, much better fit for his chances of production than Mularkey's ever could've been.
Whichever way you look at it, the writing for Turner is on the wall for 2013…
He’ll be 31 in 2013. Those snaps that started to decrease in 2012 will continue to fade away in 2013, and by now you can debate easily one way or the other what his snap count might be at, but you won’t be arguing for it increasing.
Losing snaps may actually increase his shelf life, but more likely than not it’s difficult to envision a scenario where either Atlanta would want to pay $5.5 million this year (as well as $5 million in 2013) for diminishing returns in both playing time, snaps and yardage or that FF owners will care much by then either way.
In the interim, he’s going to be fighting an uphill struggle against a talented back, an offensive coordinator that will be looking for new ways to integrate Rodgers, a head coach who wants to scale back his role and a general manager that won’t want to pay the contract he’s due (as it currently stands). It won't be easy.
Fred Taylor managed to still run for around 220 & 140 carries in the 2yrs following Koetter's arrival for a combined 1,750+ & 6 TD's. I think Turner has more left in the tank at this stage of their respective careers and a 850yd/ 7TD performance in 2012 based on his career YPC to-date and dependant on goal-line and redzone vultures, as a last "hurrah" of sorts for owners.
It's a changing of the guard in Atlanta.
James Elvins is a staff writer for fantasy sharks and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.http://www.fantasysharks.com/artman2/pu ... htm?page=2