Anybody that has been a regular visitor to this site and/or its forums over the past six months probably is aware that I’m one of the biggest doubters of Michael Turner and whether he has a lot left in the tank. I’ve written about him a number of times.
The news that the Detroit Lions are shopping for a running back had my head swimming with scenarios for a few brief moments that could see the Falcons shipping Turner north. Talk that players like Knowshon Moreno, Chris Ivory, and Anthony Dixon are the on the roster bubble also peaks my interest in regards of whether the Falcons should start making some phone calls to discuss trade scenarios. Not to mention last week’s debate about whether should be looking at Maurice Jones-Drew as their starting running back.
I’m not saying the Falcons should be in the market for a replacement for Turner at this point in time, nor am I am saying that the Falcons should not be. But the point I’m inching towards is that even if the Falcons are adamant about keeping Turner, they really seem to be setting him up for disaster.
Okay, disaster might be too strong a word. But they don’t seem to be surrounding Turner with the necessary pieces that he needs to play at the highest level. Last week I thought Turner needed a strong performance against the Dolphins to re-instill outside confidence in his abilities. He did improve, but what became apparent to me as I looked at the tape is that the Falcons don’t have a great supporting cast around Turner.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Turner is a “black hole” in the sense that his skillset requires a certain amount of necessary pieces around him to make him play his best football. When the Falcons had a strong run-blocking offensive line headlined by Harvey Dahl, and the best lead blocker in the biz by the name of Ovie Mughelli, the pieces were there. But by letting Dahl walk last summer and cutting Mughelli this past May, the Falcons appear to purposefully or unknowingly dismantling that necessary supporting cast.
I’ve discussed before that the Falcons saw drop-off in Turner’s production in certain sets with Mike Cox blocking for him instead of Mughelli last year. While I’m hopeful that Lousaka Polite will bring a bit more of the “Ovie-ness” back to the offense, it still will likely fall far short of what the original provided.
The Falcons still seem enamored with Sam Baker, despite the fact that for four years now they’ve known that Baker is about as poor a run blocker as you’re going to find in the NFL. When the team had Dahl and Clabo anchoring a strong right side, it sort of compensated for Baker’s ineptitude and Blalock’s earlier inconsistency on the left. But when the team opted to let Dahl walk last summer, it made that strength into a weakness. And now both the left and right sides of the line were equally inept at pushing the pile, leading to the team’s struggles to maintain offensive balance in 2011. While Garrett Reynolds is a competent run blocker, he’s yet to show he’s at Dahl’s level. And while I’m optimistic about Konz’s future in Atlanta, he’s also not going to fill Dahl’s shoes in that department.
So despite my constant criticism of Turner through this off-season, even I can recognize that the team hasn’t provided him with the support necessary for him to really put his best foot forward.
Turner has always been at his best as a straight-ahead, downhill running back. When he can square his shoulders and get north and south, he still remains one of the better running backs in the league with a head of steam. Thus he’s needed the front to get as much push as possible to create that space to build that head of steam. It’s why over the past four seasons, the Falcons have made ample use of the fullback relative to most NFL teams, and have also utilized a lot of two-tight end looks as well in the past. With Mike Mularkey and Paul Boudreau coordinating a lot of man-blocking looks, it made Turner a perfect fit in the style of run-oriented and balanced attack Mike Smith was looking for.
I’ve seen more zone concepts from the Falcons up front this summer than usual under Dirk Koetter, and they seem to be going with more single back and empty sets. That is more the type of offense catered towards the skills of one Jacquizz Rodgers rather than Turner. So the Falcons talk of lowering Turner’s workload seems to be coming true. I’m not sure if I’m ready to say it’s a dramatic shift in their style of offense, but it’s at least significant.
It’s borderline whether it could be called “phasing out” Turner. The team is going more towards a pass-oriented offensive attack, which is certainly understandable and merited given its potential. It’s a “passing league” as people often like to say, and the best teams are those that can get the most production from their quarterbacks, i.e. elite production. And it’s harder to get that elite play from your passer if he is spending too much time handing the ball off. It’s one of the reasons why I believe Eli Manning has elevated his game over the last couple of seasons is because the Giants have relied less and less on the ground and pound style that they were initially known for when Tom Coughlin first began there.
But all this once again raises questions on why the team was adamant about bringing Turner back if this has been the plan all along. Maybe it was not, and what they’ve seen in Turner’s off-season work and this summer has prompted them to make a larger shift than initially planned. Again, that’s not suggesting that the team is entertaining the idea of moving on from Turner before the season starts. Even though a small part of me wishes it to happen, it would be a world-tilting shock if the Falcons traded Turner within the next week or before the October 16 trade deadline. But given what little help the team is seemingly providing him and it does open up the possibilities, if only slightly…