FLOWERY BRANCH — With just one play Michael Jenkins quieted the naysayers.
It was the first game of the 2008 season and the Atlanta Falcons had a rookie quarterback, an unproven running back and several questions across the offensive line. Split left was another question in fifth-year receiver Jenkins, who was coming off his most productive season in 2007 with 53 receptions, but he still managed to accumulate only 503 yards.
Enter Matt Ryan, who surprised everyone watching when he launched the first pass of his career 62 yards for a touchdown. The play showed the NFL what Ryan was capable of, but it was the man on the other end of the pass that needed that play the most.
That man was Jenkins.
"It definitely jump started my season, and I think it jump started our whole team," said Jenkins after Wednesday’s voluntary workout. "It obviously showed throughout the year, the way we performed and hopefully it’ll carry over to this year."
No one hopes for that more than Jenkins, who caught 50 passes for three touchdowns and a career-high 777 yards in 2008.
"I gotta credit the offense and the way it flowed," Jenkins said. "The way everybody was able to make plays and we were all able to get our share."
With All-Pro wide receiver Roddy White on the other side of the field, and running back Michael Turner rushing for 1,699 yards, the Falcons finished 10th in the NFL with 24.4 points scored per game and sixth in total yards with 361.2. White, Ryan and Turner may have been the focal points of that offense, but Jenkins benefited the most from its success.
"You gotta pay attention to Roddy because he’s an All-Pro receiver," Jenkins said. "Defenses are going to pay attention to him and that left a lot of one-on-one stuff on my end."
In the past, Jenkins may have faulted in those types of situations, but last year he shined, and the former first-round pick that some labeled a bust, was finally able to show why the Falcons selected him with the 28th pick in the 2004 draft.
"You gotta take it with a grain of salt," Jenkins said of the criticism he received after catching only 82 passes for 1,063 in his first three seasons. "There’s people out there that don’t really know the whole story, whatever they may think. But you gotta continue to press on and keep working hard and things will work out."
He proved that during the Falcons’ 24-0 win against Oakland on Nov. 2 when the 26-year-old caught a season-high six passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns.
From that game on the former Ohio State star became a solid option on offense and recorded three or more receptions in seven of the final eight games of the year, including five in Atlanta’s 30-24 loss to Arizona in the first round of the NFC Playoffs.
But last year is in the past and Jenkins knows that his team still has plenty of work to do.
"We have to continue to be humble and not think that what happened last year is automatically going to happen this year," he said. "We have to put the work in and hopefully have that success again."
That work starts with the voluntary workouts, and even a 13-year veteran like newly acquired tight end Tony Gonzalez left impressed with how much focus and desire his new teammates are displaying.
"These guys want to be here," Gonzalez said. "They’re hungry, they’re young, and they’re interested in their legacy and I’m excited to be a part of that. It gives me a renewed energy to compete."
That should scare opposing defenses because now the Falcons have a hungry, future Hall of Fame tight end ready to contribute to their already potent offense of White, Ryan, Turner, Jerious Norwood and Jenkins.
"I can’t wait to see it," Jenkins said of how dangerous the offense is. "I’m in it, but I can’t wait to see it myself. I think it’s gonna be a fun year."
For Jenkins, he hopes the year will also be his best yet, one in which he can eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time in his career. There’s only one thing that he’ll take instead of a 1,000-yard year.
"A thousand yards would be a great personal goal, but the ultimate goal is to win a championship," he said. "If we can get that and I don’t get 1,000, I’ll be a happy customer."
So will anyone that ever doubted him.