Falcons at Chargers
When: 4:05 p.m. Sunday
TV: FOX (WAGA-5)
FLOWERY BRANCH — Michael Jenkins believes the Atlanta Falcons have only begun to show what they can accomplish.
“When you look back on it, great teams of the past kind of had the same guys there together throughout their careers,” he said Wednesday. “Hopefully we’ll have something like that here.”
One day after signing a four-year extension worth a reported $20 million, Jenkins returned to the practice field, running routes alongside Roddy White and catching passes from rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.
The chance to spend the next several seasons in an offense led by Ryan, Atlanta’s new franchise cornerstone and the NFL’s No. 3 overall draft pick, was too significant for Jenkins to postpone.
Jenkins gave general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith reason to believe he had far more to offer than he showed in his first four years with the Falcons.
It was Jenkins who caught Ryan’s first NFL pass, a 62-yard touchdown in a season-opening win over Detroit. And it was Jenkins who ran the perfect route and had the presence of mind to step out of bounds with 1 second remaining in the play that set up Jason Elam’s game-winning field goal last month against Chicago.
Jenkins also scored a pair of touchdowns at Oakland, the first of which came against DeAngelo Hall, a former teammate whom the Falcons drafted No. 8 overall in 2004. Twenty-one picks later, Atlanta traded up to acquire Jenkins, but their early careers hardly compared.
Hall made the Pro Bowl twice. Jenkins, whose Falcons (7-4) visit San Diego (4-7) on Sunday, became an afterthought.
“I’ve been through a lot, obviously, in these five years,” Jenkins said. “So you just stay focused because in this league it’s kind of about the mentally strong and being able to endure and go through whatever obstacles might come up. It’s been up and down, but I’m glad to be where I am right now.”
A former Ohio State standout with a rangy 6-foot-4 frame, Jenkins lacked a major role in Atlanta’s offense until Dimitroff and Smith were hired 10 months ago.
The source of Jenkins’ struggles was twofold. He developed a reputation for dropping passes in losses at the Georgia Dome — like the 62-yarder that fell through his fingers against the New York Giants in 2006 and the ball that slipped away last year and allowed Saints safety Roman Harper to score an easy touchdown.
Jenkins also played his first three years in an imbalanced attack led by improvisational quarterback Michael Vick and heavily influenced by former line coach Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking schemes.
The Falcons led the NFL in rushing all three years, but they went a combined 15-17 and missed the playoffs in 2005-06. That led to the firing of coach Jim Mora, coordinator Greg Knapp and Gibbs, but new coach Bobby Petrino fared even worse last season.
Undermined initially by Vick’s dogfighting scandal and the eventual federal imprisonment of the franchise star, Petrino led Atlanta to a 4-12 record.
It was a wasted season for the Falcons, who watched Petrino walk away to become Arkansas’ coach last December. But owner Arthur Blank seems to have finally found the right fit with Dimitroff and Smith.
Smith, in turn, hired veteran assistants and former NFL head coaches in coordinator Mike Mularkey and receivers coach Terry Robiskie. The new staff decided to move Jenkins from the slot, where he lined up for Petrino and back as the No. 2 wideout behind White.
“Each year has been a learning process for me,” Jenkins said. “Being inside last year for me opened things up where you can try to do more on the field. The more you can do, the better off you are.”
Ryan likes his core of receivers, which also includes rookie Harry Douglas, a third-round pick who scored two touchdowns against Carolina last week, 10th-year veteran Brian Finneran and second-year wideout Laurent Robinson.
White is the obvious No. 1, ranking as the NFL’s third-leading receiver with 973 yards. Jenkins has 33 catches, 29 less than White, for 498 yards and three TDs.
The Falcons believe Jenkins’ production, however, can only improve if he stays healthy and Ryan continues to benefit from the powerful play of running back Michael Turner and the acrobatic display of White.
“First of all, I’m happy for Jenks,” Ryan said. “Without question, the more time you spend with receivers and the more time receivers spend with quarterbacks, you get to develop better chemistry and get a better feel for each other. That’s why it’s going to be a lot of fun to have these guys around for a long time. I think we’ve started off well, and we’ve made some strides, but I think we still have a long way to go.”
The soft-spoken Jenkins agrees.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I think we really have something going with what coach Smith and the offensive staff brought with them.”