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Falcons' Turner burns the fat

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Dripping with sweat from a full practice and a series of post-practice sprints with the other Atlanta Falcons running backs, Michael Turner(notes) is nonetheless relaxed as he goes from a nutritional supplement drink to a Gatorade.

This is what happens when you get out of the cave.

Unlike last year, Turner isn't making up for lost time in the offseason. He isn't freaking out about getting into football shape. As one of the last "bell cow" running backs in the NFL, Turner has the routine down and the goal in order.

"I don't want to be one of those guys who people sit around the barbershop going, 'Oh yeah, remember him, he had that one great year, then he was gone,' " Turner said. "Not me. I want one of those careers that people really remember, like, 'Wow, he was good.' "

For now, Turner has done the one-hit-wonder routine. He gained 1,699 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in the 2008 season, emerging from four years as LaDainian Tomlinson's(notes) backup in San Diego after the Falcons signed him as a free agent. More important, Turner helped lead the Falcons and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) to the playoffs that season, helping erase some of the negativity built from the Michael Vick(notes) scandal.

Last year, Turner's production dropped almost in half as he gained 871 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. He was limited to 11 games because of an ankle injury. The rest of the Falcons went with him, failing to make the playoffs.

Turner said last season's downfall was about more than an injury. After his strong 2008, during which he carried a league-high 376 times in the regular season, Turner needed some serious rest.

"We made the playoffs and then I played in the Pro Bowl and all that was cool," Turner said. "Then I got home and I was just beat up. I needed to just rest, and I just went into a cave and didn't come out."

But he didn't come out until it was too late.

"I thought I'd just rest, but I was off too long, I got sloppy with my eating, the whole thing," he said. "By the time I got to training camp, I wasn't in good shape at all. It wasn't so much the weight, but my body fat was up. All of camp, I'm trying to catch up. I'm trying to get in football shape while I'm trying to lose weight, and I was just never right."

The 5-foot-10, 244-pound Turner is a rare commodity, a big man who can run like a guy 30 or 40 pounds lighter. Before he got to Atlanta, he had compiled three runs of 70 yards or longer in only 228 carries. But such talent comes with thoroughbred qualities. Unlike big backs such as Jerome Bettis, Turner's game is dependent on his ability to break away, not simply break tackles.

"I had no burst," said Turner, one of a declining number of workhorse backs. Over the past three years, there have been an average of fewer than six backs to get at least 300 carries each season as more and more teams go to the two-back system. From 2000 to 2006, the average was nearly 10 backs a year with at least 300 carries, if not a few with 400.

"When you start talking about 400 carries, that's probably too much," Falcons coach Mike Smith(notes) said. "But we definitely want to see Michael getting the big share of the carries. That's what works for him."

What drives Turner to return to his 2008 level is a strong sense of pride.

"Michael is not one of those guys who gets satisfied and complacent," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "When we did our background work on him, that wasn't something that came up to us as a concern. He's a guy who's willing to do whatever it takes.

"I think the decline in his performance was really about the injury and learning what it took to be a lead back. He hadn't done that in four years, and all of a sudden he was that guy again and he had to learn how to deal with it."

Turner's desire has shown up this offseason in obvious ways. From teammates such as Curtis Lofton(notes) to offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, everyone has seen Turner nearly every day, working out on a treadmill or an elliptical.

"Mike T. has been serious about it all offseason," Lofton said. "I was working on some rehab stuff this offseason and he was beating me in everyday. He must have been here by six or seven o'clock, working on a machine or whatever."

Even the week of the Fourth of July, a time when most players scatter early in anticipation of the holiday, Turner was at the facility working out.

"When the coaches tell us, 'Go home,' most guys don't think twice," Lofton said. "Guys were out on like Tuesday of that week, but Mike was still around on Thursday or Friday, getting his workout in."

Mularkey noticed the same routine. From late June through most of July, when the coaches were away, Mularkey would come by the office every few days or so to check on something or pick something up. When he came by, he found Turner.

"It's like I tell all the guys, it's the things you do when no one is looking that make a difference," Mularkey said. "Michael was in there working when nobody was around, nobody was looking. I think it's going to pay off in a big way for him."