Falcons' faith in Sam Baker paying off

Sam Baker's improved play at left tackle is one reason the Atlanta Falcons are 3-0. AP Photo/Paul Abell

You need to go back to what seemed like the winter of Sam Baker's NFL career to fully understand why everything is in full bloom these days.

The left tackle is playing the best he ever has and it’s no coincidence the Atlanta Falcons are off to a 3-0 start.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it’s never even been close to this for Baker, whose first four seasons were filled with injuries and criticism. It got so bad in a 2011 season in which Baker lost his starting job that he was pretty sure his days in Atlanta were over.

But two intertwined events happened last winter that changed Baker’s perspective on life and maybe -- just maybe -- will go a long way toward changing the fortunes of a franchise.

The first came on Christmas. That’s the day Baker and wife Antoinette had their first child. That’s the day Gunnar Harvey Baker was born.

“All of the sudden, you realize it’s not all about you,’’ Baker said. “All of the sudden, I realized it doesn’t matter if everybody in the world hates me and says I can’t play because he was there to love me and he didn’t care one bit about football. He needed me and was going to love me no matter what.’’

It’s ironic because within the next couple of weeks, Baker would get a similar message from someone else. Even with Gunnar around, nothing else was guaranteed for Baker.

Atlanta’s season, one in which the Falcons seemingly had gone all-in for the Super Bowl with the draft-day trade to get Julio Jones, ended long before anyone expected. It ended with an ugly 24-2 loss to the New York Giants in the first round of the playoffs.

“I had struggled and hadn’t played well at all,’’ Baker said. “I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I thought I might be gone.’’

A lot of people just assumed Baker would be gone. Before the team buses even departed the Meadowlands that day, fans already were talking about how the Falcons needed to go find a new left tackle to protect quarterback Matt Ryan's blind side. The Falcons didn’t have a first-round draft pick, but maybe they could trade for one. Or maybe they could go out and find one in free agency.

As the brain trust got settled back into the team’s Flowery Branch facility and brought in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and offensive line coach Pat Hill, there were some high-level meetings about Baker’s future.

That’s when public opinion and reality went in different directions. That’s when coach Mike Smith, who often comes across as a father figure to his players, called in Baker and talked to him like a son.

“I told Sam we were sticking with him, but that he needed to get away from football for a bit,’’ Smith said. “I told him to go get his body rested up and healthy. The guy has always been tough and resilient, but the fact of the matter is Sam rarely was truly healthy from the day he first got here.’’

Baker walked out of the meeting as surprised as fans would be as time went on and they realized they weren’t getting a new left tackle.

“To be totally honest, I went in there with a ton of uncertainty on my part,’’ Baker said. “I felt honored that they still had faith in me. You don’t get a lot of loyalty in the NFL. I decided right then that I needed to listen to him, put my head down and go all out.’’

Baker went to his offseason home in California. He spent time with Gunnar and the rest of his family.

“I unplugged mentally,’’ Baker said. “My wife had been telling me for years that I needed to unplug once in a while; that I wore it all on my sleeve and took it too hard when things weren’t going well.’’

There was time for Baker’s soul to heal. Same for his body, especially the back and elbow problems that bothered him so much last season. Within a few weeks, Baker began working with some personal trainers.

It wasn’t the heavy weightlifting he usually did in the offseason and there wasn’t anything focused specifically on football.

“The emphasis was on movement and just getting my body loose,’’ Baker said.

The funny thing here is that even though he’s 6-foot-5 and 301 pounds, the ability to move fairly well was the one bright spot early in Baker’s career. Scouts and coaches said he had remarkably quick feet for a guy his size.

But, as the injuries piled up, Baker couldn’t even move well anymore. That’s why the Falcons gave his starting job to journeyman Will Svitek and briefly -- and unsuccessfully -- tried Baker at guard.

When the Falcons started their offseason program in the spring and Baker returned to Atlanta, he continued working with director of athletic performance Jeff Fish on his movement. When training camp rolled around, Smith noticed a huge difference in Baker. It’s carried over into the regular season and Smith said Baker is playing better than ever.

“Absolutely,’’ Smith said. “Sam’s healthy and that makes a big difference. “You can see that he’s moving much more fluidly. He’s playing very well and so is our entire offensive line. They’re doing a great job protecting Matt and when Matt is able to stay on his feet, he’s able to distribute the ball and make a lot of good things happen.’’

The way the offensive line is playing brings us back to another story about Gunnar. The Bakers chose his middle name as a way to honor Harvey Dahl. He was a guard for the Falcons when Baker first came into the league and the two built a strong friendship. Dahl left Atlanta as a free agent last season and those that weren’t blaming Baker for all the offensive line’s problems last season were pointing to Dahl’s departure as the reason for the downfall.

Dahl, Baker, center Todd McClure, guard Justin Blalock and tackle Tyson Clabo had been together since 2008. Garrett Reynolds, who ended up in Dahl’s spot last year and remains there, joined the Falcons in 2009.

“When Harvey left and we had some injuries early last year, I think there were some issues with continuity on the line,’’ Baker said. “But this is a great group and most of us have been together for five years. We all love each other and you can really see the continuity coming through now.’’

Maybe that continuity is shining because the Falcons gave Baker some emotional nurturing and allowed him to grow as a person. And, perhaps most of all, they gave him time to heal and become the player they always thought he could be.