The Associated Press
ATLANTA — No matter how hard they tried to focus only on the future Monday, the Atlanta Falcons couldn’t celebrate the additions of running back Michael Turner and three other free agents without paying due tribute to departed star Warrick Dunn.
It was no surprise that the Falcons cut Dunn on Monday; the action was expected when Turner agreed to a six-year deal reportedly worth $34.5 million, with approximately $15 million guaranteed, on Sunday.
But even new executives and coaches who never worked with Dunn felt compelled to acknowledge the contributions of Dunn, one of the team’s most popular players.
"It’s definitely a tough business decision but in business at times you have to put your emotions aside and do what is in the best interest of the club and in Warrick’s best interest," said general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
The Falcons gain about $3 million in salary cap space by releasing Dunn, 33.
"I don’t know Warrick personally but from afar I respect him and understand he may go to another team and do well, and we wish him all the best," Dimitroff said.
Last season, Dunn became the 22nd back in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards.
Dunn had three straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Falcons, helping the team lead the NFL in rushing from 2004-06. He ran for a career-high 1,416 yards in 2005, earning his third Pro Bowl appearance.
But the 11-year veteran found little room to run after the Falcons fired coach Jim Mora and brought in Bobby Petrino. Dunn rushed for just 720 yards and averaged 3.2 yards per carry during a dismal 4-12 season, which was marred by Michael Vick’s dogfighting case and Petrino’s stunning resignation just 13 games into his debut season.
With a new coach and general manager, the Falcons decided to go younger at running back, signing Turner, 26, to share carries with 24-year-old Jerious Norwood.
"The legacy he leaves in Atlanta will be long-remembered and appreciated by his fellow players, fans and the community," Atlanta owner Arthur Blank said of Dunn.
"In my mind, Warrick will always be part of the Falcons family. At times like this our hearts are heavy, but the nature of the game sometimes requires making these kinds of decisions, however difficult they are for all of us."
Dunn spent six seasons with the Falcons, finishing as the third-leading rusher in franchise history with 5,979 yards. He was nearly as well known for his charitable work, most notably the "Home For The Holidays" program that helped single parents become first-time homeowners by making the down payment on new furnished homes.
In 2004, Dunn received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
"Warrick Dunn epitomizes all that is good about the National Football League and professional sports," Dimitroff said. "What he has done on the field is remarkable. What he has done off the field with his well publicized Homes For the Holidays program has changed and impacted lives."
New Falcons coach Mike Smith called Dunn "a class person."
"It’s always tough to release a veteran player, especially someone who had the accolades Warrick does, not only on the field but off the field," Smith said.
Dunn’s final season with the Falcons was largely forgettable. Vick’s legal troubles robbed the team of one of its best running threats, and the offensive line struggled to adapt to Petrino’s blocking scheme.
But Dunn did join an exclusive club in Week 12, reaching 10,000 yards in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts. For his career, he has 2,484 carries for 10,179 yards and 47 touchdowns, along with 463 receptions for 4,009 yards and 15 TDs.
Dunn spent his first five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, twice rushing for 1,000 yards and earning two trips to the Pro Bowl. He was drafted 12th overall out of Florida State in 1997.
Dunn’s future in Atlanta was uncertain even before the addition of Turner, who after four seasons as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego is expected to join Jerious Norwood in a tailback rotation. Turner (5-10, 237) is considered the power back, but like Norwood he also has big-play potential.
"We are adding another dimension to our running game," Smith said. "Our opponents now are going to have to defense a power back and a speed back in Jerious Norwood."
Smith, the former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, said other coordinators may have to prepare for the possibility of the Falcons lining up Turner with Norwood in the same backfield.
The Falcons signed Turner, safety Erik Coleman, cornerback Von Hutchins and tight end Ben Hartsock this weekend.
The Falcons had all four in Atlanta together and sold the players on the team and the city with a whirlwind weekend. Blank was brought in to close the deals.
"We definitely felt like we were back in college on the recruiting trips," Coleman said. "We spent all the time together and kind of gained a relationship with each other along with meeting with the coaches and Mr. Blank. We thought it was a great atmosphere for us and each one of us thinks we can turn this thing around and help out the team as much as we can."
Added Hartsock: "This whole trip was extremely impressive. You hear about free-agent visits and it’s in and out, move, move, move. They did roll out the red carpet, not that the red carpet is what made it special. To me it was a genuine feeling of being welcomed by every person in this organization, from Mr. Blank on down. To me, that was a huge selling point."