How much is in Turner’s tank?

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Michael Turner (Getty Images)

Down the road the Falcons may potentially be turning into a pass-centric vertical offense, but at least for the time being that is not likely to be the case. In 2011, they will likely heavily lean on running back Michael Turner as they have done the past three seasons. But Turner is now age 29 and is coming off another season where he took a lot of abuse with 334 carries. One wonders how much is left in the tank.

When the Falcons signed Turner a few years ago only weeks after his 26th birthday, it seemed like they had gotten a steal. Turner had not gotten a lot of reps in San Diego during his four years there, so his age might have been that of a 26-year old, but the tread on the tires seemed comparable to that of a back three or four years younger. And with his dominant performance in his first season as a Falcon, it seemed like those expectations were spot on.

But the following year, his production dropped off due to injury. Many blame the curse of 370, which some smarter people than me have shown is largely a myth.

But Turner himself will blame the fact that he wasn’t in the best of shape. He came back in 2010 in better shape (less round), and improved. But one thing has been noticeable in all three years since he’s signed, the Flacons are relying less and less on Turner to make their offense go. A big reason for that is the progression of Matt Ryan. Ryan took real steps forward last year, and many expect him to do so again. The Falcons added Julio Jones as well as Jacquizz Rodgers in the draft, and so one wonders where does Michael Turner fit into all of this?

One thing that is going for Turner is that the coaching staff still rely heavily on him in the ground game. Jason Snelling was practically a forgotten entity after his Week 2 performance last seasons as a fill-in for Turner.  Turner received roughly 75% of the carries given to running backs last year, which is about right up there with his workloads in 2008 and in 2009 pre-injury. So it’s reasonable to expect that even with the addition of a player like Rodgers, that will hold true in 2011.

The Falcons rely heavily on Turner in the first quarter of the game. Last season, the Falcons run-pass balance in that quarter was roughly 47:53, and Turner received over 88% of the rushing attempts. The Falcons want to establish the run early and hopefully wear down the defense so that late in the game they are much more easily able to overcome them. This strategy worked in several of the Falcons wins.

But in the second quarter, their run-pass balance drops to 37:63, and Turner receives 75% of the touches for running backs. Many Falcon fans want the team to open up their offense and be more like the offense they are in the second quarter for all four quarters. A reasonable request when one considers that the Falcons scored touchdowns in only 7 of 16 first quarters last year, but in 13 of 16 second quarters. The Falcons were never held scoreless in the second quarter, while they were in 7 of 16 first quarters.

The scoring breakdown is very similar in the third and fourth quarters, as the offense scores more in the latter period when they are relying less on Turner. The run-pass balance is similar in both quarters in the second half, with 47:53 and 46:54 ratios respectively in the third and fourth quarters. But in the third, the Falcons rely on Turner for 78% of their touches on the ground, but only 59% in the fourth quarter.

The coaching staff has been open about their desire to give Turner a lighter workload, and the statistics suggest that the Falcons offense seems to be better when that is the case. The coaching staff still wants to be a physical football team, and Turner embodies that.

It leads to questions of where is Turner’s future beyond this season. Obviously, the answer to that question relies heavily on his production in 2011. If he has another 300-plus carry, 1300-yard season with double digit touchdowns, it’s very likely that he’ll be back in 2012. But another major injury and/or a significant drop in production, coupled with the development and emergence of young guys like Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers down the road could have the team looking elsewhere to solve the bulk of the running back issues next season. I personally don’t think that is going to be the case. But it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Turner is after all 29 years old, and that is a year or two beyond the point where typical NFL running backs start to show serious decline in production. Perhaps Turner benefits from the limited wear on his body from his days in San Diego, and will be atypical when it comes to that eventual decline. There aren’t a ton of backs that are productive beyond the age of 30. And most that are in recent memory are smaller, quicker backs that didn’t get a ton of carries in their youth, such as Tiki Barber and Warrick Dunn. But perhaps Turner can be somewhat like Corey Dillon, who had a 1600-yard season in 2004 with the Patriots at age 30. Thomas Jones had a similar career path as Turner, getting very light workloads during the early portion of his career, and then became a workhorse in the latter half of it with teams like Chicago, New York, and now with Kansas City. He had a 1400-yard season in 2009 with the Jets at age 31.

So it’s possible that Turner has two or so more years left in the tank. But it’s best served for the Falcons to maximize their chances of him lasting that long by making more gains to lighten his workload.

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Aaron Freeman
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