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Falcons' Turner pessimistic about lighter workload under Koetter

The SportsXchange

ATLANTA -- In his first year as the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter has preached a gospel of diversity, a vertical-based scheme that relies on getting the ball into the hands of a lot of different playmakers.

The public emphasis in the offseason has largely revolved around the passing game. The focus is on second-year veteran Julio Jones, if only because four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White has suggested he will likely catch fewer passes in 2012.

But the diversity that Koetter has promised extends beyond just quarterback Matt Ryan and his talented corps of receivers. It refers, as well, to a running game that leans heavily on ninth-year tailback Michael Turner, and on the purported plan to reduce his workload this season.

One can pardon Turner, the NFL leader in rushing attempts over the past four seasons, if he seems at least a bit dubious.

"They always say that," noted Turner, who, in four years with the Falcons averaged 337.0 rushes in the three seasons in which he started more than 11 games.

Deeds, of course, speak louder than words in the NFL, as in all of life.

Turner, who turned 30 in February, is one of the curious skeptics anxious to see how Koetter's blueprint evolves.

In the first four seasons of his NFL career, with San Diego, Turner was the backup to LaDainian Tomlinson, essentially the equivalent to being Cal Ripken's understudy. He averaged 57.0 attempts per season, never registered more than 80 carries a year, and rubbed little tread off the tires.

Since signing with the Falcons in 2008 as a free agent, though, Turner has laid some serious rubber. His powerful running style has left cleat marks on the broken bodies of opposition defenders, but also peel-out evidence all over the Georgia Dome. As noted, Turner has logged 300-plus carries in three of his four seasons, the exception in 2009, when an ankle injury sidelined him for five games. During the same period, only five other backs have posted as many as two 300-carry campaigns.

Turner has averaged 20.2 carries in his 57 starts in a Falcons' uniform.

The raw numbers from last season -- 1,340 yards, 11 touchdowns, a healthy 4.5-yard average (after slumping to 4.1 yards in '10), a half-dozen 100-yard games -- suggest that Turner can still carry the load. But the empiricism aside, the perception of many scouts in the league was that Turner, even though he posted 11 runs of 20 yards or more, was slower to the hole in 2011. That was evident at times when he attempted to cut back, and defenders closed the gap on him quicker than in the past.

A rare combination of power and long speed, Turner is still capable of sprinting through a secondary, but seemed tardy in tight spaces. It is a notion he debunks, but the history of decline among 30-something tailbacks is harder to deny, and Koetter and the Falcons seem dead-set on getting other runners involved.

"We did it in Jacksonville," said Koetter, who spent the past five seasons serving as the Jaguars' offensive coordinator.

To some extent, that was the case, but largely when Koetter had Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew on the roster at the same time. With the departure of Taylor after the 2008 season, the Jacksonville running game plowed on the back of prized thoroughbred Jones-Drew, the NFL's reigning rushing champion. In the three years after Taylor's departure, MJD has averaged 318.0 rushes and accounted for 80.0 percent of the carries by Jacksonville backs.

That's even more than the 75.4 percent accounted for by Turner in his three healthy seasons in Atlanta.

No Jacksonville back beyond Jones-Drew has logged more than 84 carries over the past three seasons.

It's fair to note that just rushing attempts alone aren't the only way in which Koetter plans to relax Turner's burden. The Falcons will be more vertical than in the past under former coordinator Mike Mularkey, ironically now the Jacksonville head coach.

White, who has five straight seasons of 80-plus receptions, including two consecutive years with 100 or more catches, probably will abdicate some of the workload to the explosive Jones. Atlanta will spread the field more. And the Falcons, for years one of the NFL's worst screen-pass teams, figure to throw the ball to the backs more in 2012.

The last two elements should contribute to creating wider creases, and more inside running room, for Turner. To truly reduce the physical attrition, though, Koetter must develop a second reliable back, and that will be a priority in training camp next month for the new coordinator.

The two candidates, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers, are intriguing guys, but have only one 100-carry season between them. That came in 2009, when Turner was injured and Snelling got 142 attempts. Snelling, who sometimes doubles as a fullback, is the more workmanlike of the two, but a very good receiver. The undersized Rodgers had only 57 rushes as a rookie in 2011, but possesses home-run potential, and the ability to create big plays in space.

Twenty-three teams had at least two backs with 100 rushes each in 2011. The NFL is evolving not so much into a tailback-by-committee league, but one in which there is at least some modicum of diversity.

For the Koetter design to work, perhaps for the Falcons to become more than just a playoff contender and to maybe extend Turner's career, the time-sharing plan has to be more than merely articulated.

What the Falcons "always say," in the words of Turner, has to be a point of emphasis, not just a talking point.

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