I was disappointed to read that Mike Smith indicated that Michael Turner would remain in Atlanta as their feature back. I’m not at all surprised, but nonetheless disappointed. It would have been a bold move to cut a player coming off a 1300-yard rushing season, but I think it would be the most prudent move.
I think despite Turner’s production last year, I think he’s poised to have a sharp drop in his production this year. His play last year reminded me a lot of Jamal Lewis in 2007 with the Cleveland Browns. That year, Lewis finished with 1,304 yards, 4.4 yards per carry and 9 touchdowns. Much of that production came in a few games, racking up 308 yards in two outings against the Bengals, as well as 163 yards against the Bills, 118 against the Jets, and 134 yards against the Texans. The following year at age 29, Lewis struggled, plodding his way to a 1,002-yard season, but only averaging 3.6 yards per carry and finishing with 4 touchdowns. I mention some of those strong performances Lewis had in 2007 because they came against some of the league’s weaker run defenses that year.
Turner’s production from this past year mirrors that with some strong performances against some of the league’s weaker run defenses, notably teams like Carolina, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and New Orleans.
Turner just turned 30 nearly two weeks ago, and many will say that he’s a relatively young 30 because he didn’t get a lot of carries in his early to mid 20s. But just because they say it, doesn’t make it true. When you watch Turner, he moves like a guy that is 30 years old. The Falcons potentially open themselves up to having a 2008 Jamal Lewis-type year where Turner just plods his way to a high rushing total despite being very lackluster in doing so.
Smith indicates that the team will make strides to keep Turner’s “pitch count” down by trying to work in the other backs. But the best way to limit Turner’s pitch count is probably to eliminate him from the roster altogether.
The problem with Turner is not that he can’t be sporadically an effective player anymore because he’s a black hole. Now what exactly do I mean by that? A black hole is often considered one of the most destructive forces in the universe because it’s extremely high gravity sucks in everything and utterly destroys it.
The Falcons offense as it moves forward should be revolving around Matt Ryan, the quarterback. But Turner’s presence on the roster prevents that from occurring. For Turner, he sucks up too many resources because he’s a very specific fit for an NFL team.
For the Falcons a few years ago, that was a perfect fit. With a young Matt Ryan, the Falcons needed some stability on offense, and Turner provided it. He was a workhorse that the Falcons could pound multiple times over the course of a game, wear down the defense and finish games. But Turner is not that player anymore. And now that Matt Ryan has made major strides as a passer from where he was in 2008 and 2009, the Falcons do not need that player any longer.
But that’s not stopping Turner from eating up resources. Turner’s running style requires a physical offensive line that can get push. The Falcons do not have this, as evidenced by their lackluster performance in the playoffs. Obviously it’s a goal of this team to try and fix this problem, but short of the team going on a spending spree to really beef up the 3 of their starting positions in free agency, it’s very unlkely that will happen overnight. Again, the Falcons will have to expend a number of resources to make it work with Turner.
Another problem is that Turner needs a bruising lead blocker in front of him. Now for years Ovie Mughelli has been that player. Is Ovie still that player? We don’t know. His performance last year was lackluster at best, and whether that was due to injury or age remains to be seen. But keeping Turner, means that this team should keep Ovie. That’s $3 million in resources that the team could elsewhere that will need to be spent on retaining Ovie.
The other issue that Turner has is that he’s not particularly good in the passing game. While he’s a competent and capable pass protector, he has hands of stone. In Dirk Koetter’s offense, a running back that can catch the ball out of the backfield is particularly effective. It’s why eventually the Jaguars phased out Fred Taylor because he was nothing special in the passing game, and why a player like Maurice Jones-Drew has blossomed under Koetter. That means that the Falcons offense becomes much easier to defend when Turner is in the game. Teams don’t have to account for him very much in the passing game, because he is the weakest link of the Falcons current trio of backs as far as that goes. The Falcons threw the ball 58% of the time last year, meaning that Turner actually is hurting the Falcons offense on up to 58% of its offensive snaps.
The issue is that if the Falcons had Ryan as the centerpiece of their offense like most of the other top teams in the league do with theirs, they could provide him with complementary pieces that are designed to enhance his ability. Running backs on such teams are valuable not only for what they can do on the ground, but what they can do in the passing game. Instead of needing to chew up resources with an expensive lead blocker, the Falcons can plug in a more versatile tight end/H-back that can not only be a valuable blocker but also be able to make plays in the passing game.
This is the problem with retaining Turner as the feature back. Even if his carries are reduced, it’s not going to make him a more effective player. Much of Turner’s success relies on a high pitch count because he’s not a guy that has the ability to break long gains every time he touches the ball. In order to get five good runs out of Michael Turner at this point in his career, you’re liable to have to give him 15-25 carries. Instead, the Falcons should try to find a player that is more likely to give them five good runs on only half that number of carries. That would be a player with young legs, something Turner lacks.
Turner will continue to have his moments in 2012 as a rusher. But he’s not a guy that is going to make the most important player on the Falcons offense better. In a sense, the Falcons decision to hold onto Turner is potentially holding Matt Ryan back from taking the next step as a quarterback.
You can’t stop a black hole. Once you’re caught in its grasp, passing the event horizon, you’ll get sucked in and destroyed. The best way to avoid getting sucked in is avoiding it altogether.