FLOWERY BRANCH — As Michael Turner stretched on the field before his debut with the Atlanta Falcons, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey walked up with a message.
"It's your turn," the coach said. "You've earned the right to have this opportunity. Enjoy it and see what you can do with it."
Yep, it was his time to shine.
Rushing for more yards than any other NFL back in his first game with a team, Turner proved he was ready for the starting job he's waited so patiently to claim, having spent the last four years in San Diego backing up All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson.
"I was very excited," Turner said. "I wanted to show the world what I had. And I wanted to test myself to see what I had. It was my first game really being a starting running back in this league."
What a debut.
Turner set a franchise record by rushing for 220 yards on 22 carries, including a 66-yard touchdown. He combined with Jerious Norwood to put up 318 yards on the ground, which also set a team mark in the 34-21 victory over the Detroit Lions.
The Falcons were expecting big things from "Turner the Burner." They gave him a six-year, $34.5 million contract during the offseason, with $15 million guaranteed.
Still, no one expected him to set a franchise record in his very first game with the franchise.
"We had high expectations on him coming in here, and he blew them away," fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "I knew he was good, but I didn't know he was that good."
What a change for Turner when he showed up as his locker on Monday after getting treatment for a nasty gash on his right arm.
Several reporters and television cameras swarmed in, which rarely happened when he was with the Chargers. Tomlinson got most of the attention for the Bolts, while Turner sat at his locker — usually alone — taking it all in.
"It's just a totally different feeling," he said. "Everyone wants to talk to me. I like the attention, but I know I've got to put that to the side and go on to the next game."
Still, Turner certainly earned the right to savor the moment for a day or two.
A fifth-round draft choice out of Northern Illinois, he knew right away what his role would be when the Chargers called his name.
"I'm a pretty patient guy," Turner said. "I had to wait my turn when I got to the league."
Turner started only one game with the Chargers, but he was able to provide a tantalizing glimpse of his potential while giving Tomlinson the occasional breather.
The Burner rushed for a career-best 502 yards in 2006, and he filled in ably during a playoff game at Indianapolis last season after Tomlinson was injured, rushing for 71 yards on 17 carries in an upset of the Colts. Overall, Turner averaged 5.5 yards per carry with the Chargers.
He's averaging 10 yards a carry during his brief tenure with the Falcons, showing plenty of speed and power. Only 5-foot-10 but weighing 244 pounds, Turner goes at opposing defenses like a bowling ball shot out of a cannon. If there's a slight crease, he'll burst through it. If there's someone in the way, he'll often bounce off them, his legs churning all the way.
"He's physical," said rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who also impressed in his first game. "That's a good attribute to have as a running back. He hits the hole well, but he can shove off tacklers, too. He can break through one or two guys to get an extra 3 or 4 yards — or an extra 50."
Turner did just that on Atlanta's second possession Sunday. Taking a routine handoff at left tackle, he spotted a crease, slid off a defender like he was Jell-O and didn't stop running until 66 yards later.
Then again, considering he had to wait five years to get this chance, it's easy to see why Turner is so reticent about getting knocked off his feet.
"He's been a backup to L.T. his whole career," center Todd McClure said. "To be able to step out on his own ... and show that he's not a fluke, that he really can do it as an every-down back, I think that's a huge motivation for him."
Tomlinson, who rushed for 97 yards in San Diego's season-opening loss to Carolina, was certainly impressed when he heard what his former backup had done.
"I don't know what to say about the little brother," L.T. said with a chuckle. "He's like a little brother to me, so I was really happy for him. He had texted me Saturday night about having a good game and what not, and I texted him back. Then he goes out and puts up 200. I'm thinking like, 'Geez, what have I taught this guy?"'
Turner credits Tomlinson and another former San Diego teammate fullback Lorenzo Neal (who's now with Baltimore), for showing him what it took to be successful in the NFL. Clearly, he learned those lessons well.
"Mike's a quiet guy. He's not someone to brag or talk trash," Mughelli said. "But I know he's a competitive guy. He wanted to show everyone he was just as good if not better. He finally got his chance, and he sure took advantage of it."