FLOWERY BRANCH — When Michael Turner arrived at training camp a year ago, he had to put all doubts out of his mind.
Could he be a starter in the NFL? Could he take the sort of pounding required of a top-level running back? Could he help the Atlanta Falcons turn things around?
There are no such questions this season.
"I’m more confident now," Turner said Wednesday, having just completed a 2«-hour practice as the Falcons prepare for their preseason opener at Detroit this weekend. "I know what to expect. I know what my body is going to feel like and I’m ready to roll this year."
That can’t be good news for opposing defenses, which didn’t have much success stopping this battering ram of a running back in his debut as a full-time starter.
Turner ranked second in the NFL with 376 carries for 1,699 yards and set a franchise record with 17 touchdowns rushing as the Falcons, supposedly facing a major rebuilding year after the Michael Vick debacle, emerged as one of the league’s most surprising teams. Atlanta went 11-5 and made the playoffs — a seven-win improvement on the previous season.
"Everything is in place now," Turner said confidently. "Last year, it was kind of like we had to piece things together and just make sure we had a team first, then we could go out there and see how many games we could win. Now that we’ve exceeded expectations, hopefully we can put it all together and exceed expectations even more."
Indeed, the Falcons appear loaded on the offensive side. Quarterback Matt Ryan has a year under his belt after a sensational rookie season. Roddy White is one of the league’s highest-paid receivers after two straight 1,200-yard performances. Bolstering the offense even more, Atlanta dealt a draft pick for perennial Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, a move largely designed to ensure defenses couldn’t focus too much attention on Turner.
But it all starts with the guy who appears almost as wide (256 pounds) as he is tall (just 5 foot 10).
"Anytime you have a guy you can hand the ball off to 25 times a game and get 100 yards or more, it puts pressure on the defense," White said. "They’re going to give you a lot of eight-man boxes. You’re going to get a lot of one-on-one coverages on the outside and get the opportunity to make a lot of big plays."
White paused, then broke into a big smile.
"I love that guy," the receiver said. "Have you seen his legs? They look like tree trunks. I would never want to tackle that guy as a defensive player. As long as we’ve got that guy moving forward and doing his thing, we’re going to be OK, man."
Turner spent his first four NFL seasons backing up LaDainian Tomlinson with the San Diego Chargers. The understudy got a few chances to show off his skills, enough to persuade the Falcons to fork over a $34.5 million contract and center the offense around him, especially in the early going of the ‘08 season while Ryan was still adjusting to the pro game.
On the outside, Turner exuded confidence. On the inside, he wasn’t quite sure how it would work out.
"I didn’t know if I could last the whole season," Turner conceded. "I didn’t really truly know if I could be a starting back and take those hits week in and week out."
Any doubts were wiped away in his very first game with the Falcons. Turner rushed for a team-record 220 yards in a victory over the Lions and never looked back.
"He’s a load," said new Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson, who’s glad he’ll be watching Turner instead of trying to stop him. "He runs the ball hard and has deceptive speed. He’s everything I expected."
Turner seems to relish contact, doing most of his work in the middle of the field. He’ll often lower his shoulders and dole out a lick on a would-be tackler rather than try to avoid him. It’s rare that one defender brings him down.
"I don’t enjoy getting pounded," he said with a chuckle. "But in this league, you’ve got to try to wear out the defense. You can’t just let ‘em take free shots at you any chance they get. You’ve got to try to wear them down before they wear you down."
Despite all those carries, Turner insists he wasn’t too beat up at the end of the season. The Falcons aren’t likely to cut back much, if any, on his workload.
"I don’t think the expectations change one bit," coach Mike Smith said. "If anything, I think he’ll play with a little more confidence this year because he knows he can be a No. 1 back."