What the back meant to Atlanta.
If in the distant future when you're bouncing a virtual granchild on your bionic knee, you are asked about Michael Turner, you should be able to recall exactly what made him great during his five seasons in Atlanta.
In the interest of not disappointing little 3R1C, I've put together a handy year-by-year guide to what made Turner one of the most compelling and productive players in the long history of our Atlanta Falcons before his release on Friday. Come remember the best and worst of times with me, won't you?
The Beginning, 2008
The Falcons under Thomas Dimitroff developed a reputation for looking at players other teams might not value as highly. Turner was the first and perhaps best example of this.
It's easy to forget this now, but Turner's six year, $34.5 million contract was a huge deal at the time. He was nothing more than a talented reserve for the Chargers behind LaDanian Tomlinson, and it represented a great deal of money for a back who had never compiled more than 100 carries in a single season. As good as he looked, the Falcons could have wound up giving up $15 million in guaranteed money for nothing.
Thankfully, they did nothing of the sort. Turner had arguably the finest season in team history, running over the league to the tune of 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. He helped a rookie quarterback named Matt Ryan achieve success by being a force on the ground, and he was one of the biggest factors in the surprise playoff appearance that year.
If you want to relive the best moments of that year, here's a grainy video!
2009: The Second Coming
This was the year Turner's injuries first cropped up, and it's fair to wonder if they ever really left him.
In the 11 games Turner played, he put up 871 yards and a staggering 4.9 yards per carry average. He also scored 10 touchdowns. Unfortunately, the team around him wasn't as good as it would be in 2010 and beyond, and with Turner down, they just missed the playoffs.
All the questions about Turner's career came after 2009. Through this two year stretch, injuries aside, Turner was one of the best three backs in the NFL. There's little question of that.
2010: Greatness Continues
You can look at 2010 with Turner's 4.1 yards per carry average and deduce it was an off year. Not so.
Consider the variables here. The Falcons were making a slow move to being a passing-friendly team. Their once-dominant run-blocking line was starting to fade. And Turner was coming off injuries. The fact that he managed 12 touchdowns and 1,300+ yards is pretty excellent.
This was the last year Turner was the centerpiece of this offense, as well. Think about how fungible running backs were becoming around this time and you understand how rare it is to have a back reel off three huge seasons. The Falcons were a throwback team with Turner, and they never could have been unless he played up to the level of the Burner.
2011: The Last Hurrah
This was Turner's last great year, but it was a year marred by some controversy.
Let's start with the controversy. Mike Mularkey kept this offense running the ball, and Turner got plenty of carries. The problem was that Turner's habit of turning in one huge game followed by one or two lesser games accelerated this year. While he finished with a healthy 4.5 yards per carry and 1,340 yards to go with 11 touchdowns, Turner certainly had some anemic games.
Still, this team needed Turner. Julio Jones was oft-injured as a rookie, the defense struggled mightily at times and the two coordinators were clearly there a year too long. He was still a true workhorse back, piling up 301 carries. He also edged closer to the franchise record books nearly across the board.
Of course, he also threw Eric Weems across the field and into our hearts. That might be one of my favorite plays of all-time, and no one but Turner could have or would have done it. He really believes in human projectiles.
2012: The End
We like our icons to go out in a blaze of glory. For a variety of reasons, that didn't happen with Turner.
With a new focus on the pass under Dirk Koetter, a still middling run-blocking line and more wear and tear on his legs, Turner finished under 1,000 yards in a full season for the first time with the Falcons. He still put up 10 touchdowns, but only received 222 carries, managed 800 yards and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Even the most ardent Turner defender was faced with the writing on the wall by the end of the year: Turner simply can't get it done over the course of an entire season, though there were still flashes of Touchdown Vampire throughout. Even with the DUI.
Turner did end up etching his name in the record books. He finished in Atlanta second in all-time yardage behind Gerald Riggs, first among all backs in touchdowns and first in yards per game. The team looked at his banged up body, his age and his salary and cut ties with him, of course, which is why we need to have this tribute in the first place.
If you look back over the life of the man's career, Turner went from a little-known backup for San Diego to arguably one of the two best backs ever to don an Atlanta uniform. He carried this team to a playoff berth in 2010 and was a huge contributor in 2009, 2010 and 2011. We shouldn't let the slow decline at the end of his time in this city define him, because he did amazing things. His 60 career rushing touchdowns aren't likely to be touched any time soon, and if he's not at least considered for the Ring of Honor, it would be a damn shame.
Farewell, Michael Turner. May great days still be ahead.