FLOWERY BRANCH — Running back Michael Turner has no doubt that he’s given the Atlanta Falcons a good return on their investment.
Since leaving San Diego to sign as a free agent four years ago, Turner has more than 5,000 yards rushing and 50 touchdowns. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is the only player with better numbers.
“Yeah, there’s only one thing left, really, and that’s a Super Bowl,” Turner said on Sunday. “That’s what I am playing for and still trying to get.”
Eleven days into training camp, however, Turner still feels the sting of Atlanta’s playoff struggles. The Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs since he signed a six-year, $34.5 million contract in 2008.
To reach his Super Bowl aspirations, Turner acknowledges that his performance must improve both in short-yardage situations and inside the opponents’ 10-yard line.
The two-time Pro Bowl selection has heard criticism that he is slowing down at age 30 and losing his burst outside the tackles to outrun linebackers.
At 5-foot-10, 247 pounds, Turner is still built to punish defenders. He still feels like “Turner the Burner,” a nickname he earned for breaking off big runs earlier in his career and why not?
His 15 runs of 20 or more yards ranked third in the NFL last season behind LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte. He has led the NFC in rushing the past two seasons, and more than half of his 1,340 yards came after contact.
“That’s one of the main things I take pride in personally,” Turner said. “The line can get you only so much. On some things, you have to do it on your own to get to that next level and to be an elite back, you have to make plays happen. Sometimes you’re going to get hit and you have to break tackles and make guys miss and get positive yards.”
One negative play, however, still casts a proverbial long shadow over Turner’s 2010 season.
Facing New Orleans in overtime last November, Turner was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 29-yard line, and the Saints soon left the Georgia Dome with a three-point victory.
Coach Mike Smith accepted blame both for deciding not to punt and for Turner getting stuffed, but not much went right for the Falcons on fourth down all season.
They finished 26th in fourth-down percentage and looked lost in the playoffs when Matt Ryan twice failed to convert quarterback sneaks against the New York Giants.
“We’ve got to do a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage, knocking the line of scrimmage back,” Smith said Sunday. “That’s a leverage play. The team that has the lower pads usually wins. Also we have to make sure that we’re putting (players) in the right (call) as a coaching staff and giving them audibles or options that they can get into the right (call).”
Another glaring problem for Turner is his difficulty inside the opponents’ 10-yard line.
He averaged 1.1 yards on 40 attempts last season and 1.3 yards on 41 attempts the year before.
“That’s something we’ve got to get better at in our red zone offense,” Turner said. “Get touchdowns, not field goals, and it starts with the running game inside the red zone. You have to pound it in there and take your shots when you have to.”
Turner lives to prove his critics wrong, the same approach he took when San Diego drafted him in the fifth round from Northern Illinois in 2004.
Playing behind Pro Bowl star LaDainian Tomlinson, Turner made the most of his chances when he got to play, averaging 5.5 yards per carry for the Chargers and rushing 17 times for 71 yards to help San Diego win a 2007 playoff game at Indianapolis.
It paid off for Turner, who has helped Atlanta go 22-3 when he rushes for 100 or more yards.
“It just happens to turn out that way,” he said.
“When we run the ball good as a football team, the percentages seem to increase on the winning side.”