FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Mike Peterson knows the end of his NFL career isn't far off.
The 13th-year NFL veteran, a starter nearly his entire career with Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Atlanta, wants to win a Super Bowl ring badly enough that he agreed to return for a third season with the Falcons and work as a reserve linebacker and special teams player.
Whatever the Falcons want him to do, Peterson says he's willing to try — even if that means casting off the swagger that comes with a starting job.
On one hand, Peterson calls it "a big pill to swallow," as the 35-year-old now works behind starting linebackers Curtis Lofton, 25; Sean Weatherspoon, 22; and Stephen Nicholas, 28. But Peterson, who also plays on the kickoff and punt coverage teams, believes he's in the right place to become an NFL champion.
"A lot of times guys have that pride, not wanting to get out there and bang it out with the younger guys," Peterson said this week. "I'm still a prideful guy, but I'm trying to get a ring, man, so I try to get out there with the young guys to show them I can still do it. That's the approach I take."
His willingness to work in a diminished role helped Peterson absorb another jab to the ego, late last month, when he signed his first one-year contract for the minimum veteran salary.
Like any established starter, Peterson was accustomed to playing on multi-year deals, but the chance to play another season for Smith, perhaps his favorite professional coach, excited him enough to turn down potential one-year deals with other teams.
Their time together began in Jacksonville in 2003 after Smith was a first-time coordinator whom head coach Jack Del Rio hired on his Jacksonville staff. Two months after Smith arrived, the Jaguars signed Peterson from Indianapolis as their new middle linebacker.
It didn't take long for Smith and Peterson to bond.
Peterson was the heart of Jacksonville's defense for the next five years. Smith, whose defenses played well enough for Falcons owner Arthur Blank to hire him as a first-time head coach in 2008, brought Peterson to Atlanta in 2009 after the linebacker suffered a couple of serious injuries and later had a falling out with Del Rio.
Smith loves Peterson as much as any player he's ever had.
"Mike Peterson is a football player," Smith said. "It doesn't matter if it's defense or special teams. He's going to do whatever it takes to contribute and help our football team win. If you ask Mike, he'd tell you he'd go over to the offensive side and play some of those positions as well. You love to have guys like that. He's a pro. He's a baller. He just loves to play the game of football."
Peterson is backing up Weatherspoon, the weak-side starter and 2010 first-round pick whom he mentors, and Nicholas, who's taken over as the strong-side starter after the Falcons re-signed him to a five-year deal worth $17.5 million.
Atlanta is likewise using Peterson to spell Lofton, the defensive captain.
"Mike has the ability to play all three positions," Smith said. "That gives us a whole lot of flexibility, not only in our base package but in our sub-package. The thing we want to do is get as many guys as possible ready. When you have a 53-man roster, it's all about cross-training because from week to week you're going to have all kinds of adjustments that you're going to have to make throughout the season."
That's just what Peterson, a second-round draft pick out by the Colts out of Florida in 1999, plans to help the Falcons do. He knows the Falcons will need fresh legs and valuable experience for a defense that last year ranked third in time of possession, fourth in interceptions, fifth in points allowed but struggled against the pass.
"I'm just trying to win, man," Peterson said. "My ultimate goal — it probably started in the middle of my career — went from wanting to lead a team in tackles or interceptions or sacks to wanting to get that ring. That's where I am right now. So whatever role that is, you know, I'm going to accept and play it to the best of my ability."
Peterson believes that playing on special teams is only making him stronger.
"That's where I started at," he said. "To me, it's like going back home. I started at the bottom. I wasn't one of those All-American guys that never played punt team and never played this. I started at the bottom and came up. So to me it's like riding a bike."