Maybe it’s for no longer than two more games, but the Falcons need Turner to be the running back he was Sunday against Seattle and the player he was the previous four seasons.
If they’re going to have any chance at defeating the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons need Turner to at least give them some semblance of a running game.
Turner doesn’t have to be the stud he was in 2008, when he ran for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns, because the Falcons have made the transition and become a pass-first team with Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones playing the lead roles. But against a San Francisco defense that’s as talented as any the Falcons have faced, Turner has to be more than the bit player he was during the regular season.
But as corny as it may sound, maybe the plan all along was to go lightly with a 30-year-old running back during the regular season and then spring him loose in the postseason. Atlanta coach Mike Smith is as straight a shooter as anyone in the league, and I remember him telling me as far back as the NFL owners meetings in March that he wanted to limit Turner’s carries. Smith repeated that all through the preseason.
“That’s something we talked about for several years," Turner said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Coach Smith told me several times that he wanted to cut down my number of carries. But it just never happened because the situation wasn’t right. Then, this year, it came true."
Turner carried only 222 times for 800 yards. He remained the starter, but split time with second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and the split was as down the middle as you’ll ever see. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Turner was on the field for 503 snaps and Rodgers took part in 502 snaps.
When Turner was on the field, he didn’t look much like the player who was the focal point of the offense the previous four seasons. He often looked slow and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, down almost a full yard from 2011. The 3.6-yard average ranked 39th among NFL running backs with significant carries. Turner had only two 100-yard rushing games (103 against Carolina and 102 against Dallas).
Throughout the season, Turner played the role of company man and said he was fine with a reduced role. But Turner now admits he wasn’t always happy.
“I kept my feelings to myself, but yeah, it was hard on me," Turner said. “It was rough. There were games when I was getting like 10 to 14 carries and I wasn’t happy about that. I was always used to getting into a rhythm as the game went on and, all of the sudden, I wasn’t getting the chance to really get into the rhythm. I’d say it probably took me the whole first half of the season to really get used to my new role.’’
Turner still had 10 rushing touchdowns, one receiving touchdown and handled most short-yardage situations. As the season went on, the Falcons seemed to work Rodgers into the lineup more and more.
The Falcons were winning and that helped Turner accept his reduced role.
“With Jacquizz and Jason Snelling [another backup running back], it all worked and we were able to finally do it the way Coach Smith had always talked about," Turner said. "The formula worked and we were winning. You don’t argue with winning."
And maybe you don’t argue with Smith. All season, whenever the coach was asked about Turner looking ineffective or not getting a lot of carries, Smith kept saying the time would come when the Falcons would need a big game from their running back.
That day came in the divisional round against the Seahawks. On a day when the Seattle defense was keying on Atlanta’s passing game, Turner looked young again. He carried 14 times for 98 yards. The flip side was that the threat of the running game allowed Ryan to complete eight of 12 play-action passes for 87 yards and three touchdowns.
Turner gave the offense balance, and that’s something the Falcons can use against a San Francisco defense that’s filled with six Pro Bowlers.
“It’s the best front seven we’ve faced all year, probably the best defense we’ve faced all year," Turner said.
The other thing Smith repeatedly said when discussing Turner was that the whole point of limiting his carries was to keep the 30-year-old running back fresh and healthy for the postseason.
“That part worked," Turner said. “I had like 100 less carries than I’m used to. You take away all those hits and you’re going to feel good."
But the reality is that Turner is going to turn 31 in less than a month and he’s carrying a $5.5 million salary-cap figure for 2013. Rodgers has continued to show signs he can take on a bigger role.
All that has led to speculation that the Falcons could add another back in the draft or free agency to pair with Rodgers and let Turner go.
“I feel like I still can go a few more years," Turner said. “People tend to forget that I didn’t play a lot my first four years [in San Diego]. I don’t think my body is wearing down."
The Falcons can sit down and ponder Turner’s future in the offseason. But that can wait.
For now, the Falcons are just hoping a rested Turner can give them two more big games.