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Finally focused, White is showing his talent

POSTED: November 23, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Dave Martin/The Associated Press

Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White scores as New Orleans Saints' Kevin Kaesviharn defends during the Falcons win over the Saints earlier this season. Imagine where the Atlanta Falcons would be without their top receiver, who is on course for perhaps the best season in team history.

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FLOWERY BRANCH — Roddy White was kicking himself after the game. Sure, it would have been a tough catch, but it shows just how far he’s come that everyone expected him to make it.

White included.

Still, after letting a potential game-winning touchdown pass slip through his hands last weekend, the Atlanta Falcons’ receiver was back to his smiling, cheerful self on Wednesday. Clearly, he’s moved on after the one that got away.

“I’m past that now,” White said. “It’s a play I can make. Everyone knows that. But the coaches were like,

‘You’re not the only one who messed up in the game.’ There’s other things we did wrong and if we had done them right, that could have changed the pace of the game. It’s old news now.”

Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to beat up on White for one of the few passes he didn’t catch. The fourth-year receiver is having another huge season, piling up 58 receptions for 903 yards through Atlanta’s first 10 games. He’s already had five 100-yard efforts and is on pace for 1,445 yards, which would easily be the most productive season in franchise history.

Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who’s gotten much of the credit for the Falcons’ surprisingly strong performance, knows he wouldn’t be having nearly as good a year without White.

“When you’ve got a receiver with that kind of talent,” Ryan said, “you’re going to do everything you can to develop the chemistry as fast as you can.”

While the two clearly clicked right from the start, White had already gone through an awakening in his own career before Ryan arrived.

Let’s go back a few years.

White was a first-round pick out of UAB, where he faced a level of competition that made it easy for him to dominate. He didn’t need to worry about running perfect routes, or paying attention during film study, or putting in extra work on the practice field.

After being drafted by the Falcons, he figured on more of the same.

“I don’t think his focus was as much on football as it needed to be,” longtime Falcons receiver Brian Finneran said. “I remember getting on him quite a bit his rookie year just because I saw so much talent there and I hated to see it going to waste.”

He’ll get no argument from White.

“When I first got here, I didn’t do anything right,” he conceded. “I just kind of played around. I was always waiting for next year, always the next year. I kept saying, ‘I’ll do good the next year, the next year.’ Then it started to wind down. I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get on the ball.’”

White’s nadir came during a 2006 loss to New Orleans, when he dropped several passes — most notably one at the Saints 10 with no one around that could have pulled out the game. Then-coach Jim Mora fell to his knees in disbelief after the ball fell to the turf.

“I was out there dropping balls my little kid could catch,” White recalled.

He heard plenty of boos that day. It was a new experience for him.

“I was the guy in college that everybody was counting on to make the plays. I was the guy at the end of the game getting all handshakes,” White said. “I had never been booed like that in my life. Sometimes it takes something like that for you to turn the page, get on the right page and start maturing. I think it helped me more than it hurt me.”

Last season, a new coach arrived. White, who had only 59 catches his first two seasons combined, wondered how Bobby Petrino could view this underachieving receiver.

Shortly after being hired, Petrino called White into his office.

“Roddy, you’re going to be the guy,” the new coach said, according to White. “We’ve been watching film, and you’re the type of guy who can lead this team.”

Petrino wouldn’t even make it through the year, abandoning the team only 13 games into a dismal season to return to the college ranks. While still viewed with disdain in Atlanta, the coach did leave behind a useful legacy: He lit a fire in White, who started working harder at practice and in the film room.

Last season, even while the Falcons were going through three different starting quarterbacks trying to find Michael Vick’s replacement, White had 83 receptions for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns.

“That’s one of the few good things he did around here,” White said with a smile, referring to Petrino. “He got me jump-started. He got me going on my way. I can’t do anything but give the guy props for that and finding ways to get me the ball.”

This season, with another new coach and another new quarterback, White is having an even better season. So are the Falcons (6-4), who face a crucial game Sunday against division-leading Carolina.

“He’s physical and he’s a route runner,” said cornerback Chris Houston, who gets to see a lot of White in practice. “A lot of receivers are not route runners. They’re just deep-ball threats, or they just want to get the ball short. Roddy can hit you in any aspect of the game and turn it into a big play.”

Last Sunday, White had five receptions for 102 yards in a 24-20 loss to Denver. With just over a minute remaining, he beat his defender and looked back for a pass in the corner of the end zone. As he tried to drag his feet to stay inbounds, the ball bounced off his hands.

“I feel responsible for the loss,” White said in the locker room afterward.

Not to worry.

The Falcons won’t hold it against him.



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