FLOWERY BRANCH — Roddy White is smiling more than ever.
The Atlanta Falcons are winning, their offense is controlling the clock and the three-time Pro Bowl receiver is thriving under pressure.
"I just like the competition it brings out in me, going out there and trying to perform well," White said Monday.
White was still grinning Monday after chasing down San Francisco cornerback Nate Clements and stripping the ball loose. Clements thought he was about to score and secure a 49ers' victory following his interception of Matt Ryan.
Instead, Falcons guard Harvey Dahl recovered the loose ball, and Atlanta resumed a game-winning drive that included four catches by White for 60 yards.
"I was laughing about it because it actually gave us a chance to win the game," White said. "Things like that happen in the NFL."
At 3-1, the Falcons are tied with three other teams for the NFC's best record. They are 23-14 under third-year coach Mike Smith and have won six of seven dating back to last December.
The successful run has coincided with White becoming one of the league's top receivers — though his first two years were hardly much fun. Despite being drafted 27th overall in 2005, White found Atlanta's nightlife too enticing to ignore.
"A couple of times, coach (Jim) Mora used to sit me down and tell me, 'We are waiting on you. Come on. Come on,'" White said. "I took it the wrong way, like a grain of salt. 'I'll get it, I'll get it,' I would say, but I just never got it."
When Mora eventually benched him in 2006, White's reputation in the receivers' meeting room was strained. A two-year standoff with veteran receiver Brian Finneran wasn't getting any better.
"Yeah, Roddy didn't like me very much his first couple of years here because I was on him pretty hard, trying to tell him to stay out of the streets and do the right thing," Finneran said. "But he knows now that it was all because I love him."
White says deep down he knew Finneran was right.
"When I first got out here, we didn't see eye to eye," White said. "He always told me that I was talented and that I could run and jump and do all of this stuff, but he said, 'You don't put the work in. It makes me sick to see guys like you who are capable of doing great things in this league and you don't want to give up the effort.'"
Curiously, White's proverbial switch clicked during the debacle of 2007. The season began with the exit of his close friend, quarterback Michael Vick, and included the abrupt departure of first-year coach Bobby Petrino.
Though he joined the chorus of Atlanta players who openly disliked Petrino, White still credits receivers coach Paul Petrino, the head coach's brother, with helping him improve.
White became the first Falcons receiver in seven years to have 1,000-yards receiving in a season, despite even working with a quarterback carousel that included Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman.
Now White is much more than a No. 1 wideout on a 3-10 team.
Since the start of 2008, he's second in the NFL in yards receiving on third down. His 32 catches this season ranks No. 2, and White ended Week 3 as the league's No. 4 receiver in yards after the catch over the last three seasons.
Smith can't imagine the Atlanta offense without White, whose pairing with 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez causes coverage dilemmas for opponents.
"Since our staff has been here, he's been nothing but a pleasure to coach," Smith said. "He is a guy that comes out, he's very competitive, he's very passionate, not only about catching the football but he's a guy that doesn't mind mixing it up and blocking. I think he's one of the top receivers in the National Football League."
That'll put a smile on White's face, who is on top of his game.
"The time bomb is always ticking, especially in the NFL," White said. "They will bring in people to replace you. They are always looking for that next guy. They only give you so many years to get yourself going. I started putting football first and good things happen when you put your job first and do what you're supposed to do."