Welcome to a new feature I like to call Stormy Skies, where I look at the position battles on both sides of the ball. I'll obviously be discounting such positions as tight end and quarterback, where nothing short of an arrest or the loss of multiple limbs is going to keep Crumpler and Vick from starting. There are a number of legitimate questions surrounding this team, and I thought there really was no better place to start than the running back battle. It's the old versus the new here, with aging good guy Warrick Dunn going against Supersonic Norwood for the starter's job. Without further ado...
In this corner, a veteran running back entering his sixth year for the Falcons. He's known for his community work and his stubborn running style. Despite being only 5'9" and 180 pounds, he's perfectly capable of taking a hit and chugging onward. He's also known for his speed and shiftiness, though both of those are beginning to slowly erode. As running backs go, he's ancient at age 32, but like Morten Andersen had a productive year with 1,140 yards and 4 TDs, for a distinctly average average of 4.0 yards per carry. It was not Dunn's best year, but he remained an effective back throughout the season. Late in the year he started to look pretty gassed for the first time I can remember. He never got over 100 yards after week 6, and only twice during the second half of the season did he even make it over sixty yards. Part of that was a function of Norwood's emergence, but Dunn finally looked like Father Time was whaling on his legs.
For the first time since he got to Atlanta, there's some doubt as to whether Dunn should or should not be the starter. I'm a firm believer that he has a quality year or two left in him, and he's still a terrific locker room presence and a nice guy in general. He's still a good receiver and a solid blocker, so there's no harm in letting him take the lead role. I expect Warrick Dunn to start this year, but his job is only safe until he falters or Norwood goes batshit crazy running the ball. As one of the classiest and hardest working Falcons, I wish him the best this year.
Predicted Stats: 240 carries, 950 yards, 3 TDs, 4.5 YPC
Opposite Warrick Dunn there's the young, speedy up-and-comer from Mississippi. He's best known for making defenses looking completely foolish and emulating his childhood hero, Sonic the Hedgehog. Like Dunn, he's capable of getting popped and moving the pile, but he's a bigger back than our incumbent starter at 5'11" and 204 pounds. His chief advantages over Dunn are age (23), size (bigger) and speed (jaw-dropping). The Falcons eased him into the running game last year, but he made the most of his scant 99 carries by rushing for 633 yards and 2 TDs. Last time I checked, the 6.4 YPC he was spotting was pretty re-goddamn-diculous. Norwood is so effective primarily because he has enough vision and power to get him into the open field, where he's absurdly fast and capable of cheerfully breaking off runs like the 78-yarder against Arizona in Week 4. There are some questions about how Norwood will do with a full workload, but it's something I think has to be conclusively tested before the Falcons jump to any conclusions. He's got some work to do on both blocking and receiving, but he's a young guy and he's given me every reason to believe e's capable of learning.
I'm going to predict that Norwood starts as a backup. Pet Rhino will like having a veteran who's a quick learner out there to start the year, but I fully expect Jerious will force his way into the conversation. Unless the team goes out and gets a real power back, it's essentially up to Dunn and Norwood to carry the load this year. With his speed and youth, it's going to be very difficult to keep Norwood from carrying the majority of that load before too long. If he can answer questions about his toughness and blocking skills, he could be taking the starting job away by midway through the season. I'd like to see him have one more year as Dunn's understudy, but he may prove himself ready for the limelight sooner than later.
Predicted Stats: 130 carries, 700 yards, 3 TDs, 5.5 YPC.
Final Word: There isn't a clear winner here, as the team benefits most from using them as a highly effective tandem. But I do think Dunn should be the starter going into the season, and I fully expect him to be. So in this edition of the Stormy Skies, the veteran wins. You may now applaud.