ATLANTA — Michael Jenkins just wants to have fun.
Since the Atlanta Falcons drafted the former Ohio State receiver 29th overall in 2004, Jenkins often had to remind himself that football is a game.
Games are meant to be fun, right?
“We can’t deny there’s been a lot of turnover since I got here,” Jenkins said Friday. “Sometimes we’re better than others, obviously. You know, we made it to the NFC championship my rookie year, but ever since then, well ... “
Jenkins’ sentence trailed off, but within a couple of seconds, his stoic post-practice mood relaxed when Roddy White ran across the field and jumped playfully on his back.
“Got to keep it loose, baby,” White said. “Got to keep it loose.”
Jenkins will try to follow his teammate’s advice when the Falcons (0-1) host the Indianapolis Colts (0-2) in a preseason game tonight.
Coming off a career breakout season with 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns, White now moves on and off the field with appropriate swagger. That was rarely the case in 2005 after Atlanta drafted White 27th overall in 2005 or in ‘06 when he eventually dropped so many passes that Ashley Lelie took his job.
“For me, it just got to a point where I let the game start coming to me,” White said. “I quit forcing things, which most receivers can’t help if nothing’s going right for them and the team.”
White essentially was the only reliable weapon the Falcons had in 13 games last year under former coach Bobby Petrino. It didn’t matter if Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich or Chris Redman was Atlanta’s quarterback that day; White still went up and made plays in the air.
His production in one season wasn’t much less than what Jenkins has given the Falcons in four full years.
Despite missing three games since he was drafted, Jenkins has career totals of 135 catches for 1,595 yards and 14 touchdowns.
No 100-yard games. No games with 10 or more catches.
Part of Jenkins’ struggles can be traced to his first three years when Atlanta had a problematic passing game under coordinator Greg Knapp and a wildly inconsistent quarterback in Michael Vick.
Jenkins caught seven passes as a rookie, but the team rarely used him much on offense. His work was mostly on special teams, and Jenkins excelled on each of the coverage and return units.
With the NFL’s leading ground attack, the Falcons didn’t throw the ball much, and when they did, Vick usually had Alge Crumpler, Dez White, Peerless Price and Brian Finneran as his options.
When Jenkins earned a starting job in 2005, opposing defensive coordinators had essentially figured out ways to make Atlanta’s passing game even more dysfunctional. Receivers would face man-to-man coverage from cornerbacks, and a speedy linebacker would be assigned to spy Vick and keep from freelancing outside the pocket.
“It’s no secret that we didn’t have a lot of faith in our passing game,” Jenkins said. “This year, though, you can tell things are different.”
With offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey in charge, the Falcons are taking the traditional approach of using a powerful running back in Michael Turner to move the chains and run the clock.
Once Redman or rookie Matt Ryan looks downfield, Mularkey doesn’t want the ball staying in the pocket long. Atlanta’s passing game is all about striking a proper balance in timed routes.
“When Mike, Bill (Musgrave) and Terry (Robiskie) put this offense together, it was based on not just what they know but what our guys can do,” head coach Mike Smith said. “Those guys are very talented receivers. That might be one of our stronger groups from top to bottom.”
Jenkins just wants to prove he can put up numbers comparable to White’s last year.
“All of us push each other to improve some part of our game every time out here,” Jenkins said. “You can say it’s my turn, but I feel like it’s always been my turn. At some point, though, you’ve got to just go play football and stop talking about it.”