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The Rise, Decline and Fall of Michael Turner

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The Rise:

Michael Turner came out of Northern Illinois riding high on what's been the zenith of their football program to-date, for the 2004 draft.

His measurables were good: A sub-4.5, 40 yard dash, 5-foot 10-inches, 244 pounds and still only 21. If you could ever go so far as to anthropomorphise a wrecking-ball Michael Turner is what you'd be talking about.

The San Diego Chargers made the decision to roll the dice on him in the fifth round, 2004. At that point in time they needed a backup for LaDainian Tomlinson. Off the back of limited play time in his rookie season he flashed plenty of potential, including an 87-yard effort against Kansas City in his first full start. In his sophomore year he also abused the Indianapolis defense on his way to a 118-yard, one-touchdown game.

In 2007, Chargers' general manager A.J.Smith was moved to offer him around the league for a mind-blowing first & third-round picks. Such was their evaluation of him at the time based on those cameo performances.

Needless to say, there weren’t many offers and he signed a one-year, $2 million tender offer to remain a Charger.

In free agency and based on limited snaps and play time, he had a growing portfolio of vignette performances and Turner quickly found himself a new home with the Atlanta Falcons as one of Thomas Dimitroff’s first moves.

Turner quickly repaid the favor by turning in a 22-carry, 220-yard, two touchdown performance in his debut, shattering the Falcons’ single game rushing record in the process.

Since then, Turner has gone on to flirt with league highs in carries and league rushing yardage:




The Decline:

Straight off the bat, i'm going to say that Turner is not dropping off a cliff or becoming fantasy redundant in 2012. Not yet. Only that expectations need to be curbed as his role will be changing. The reasons? Two-fold; Dirk Koetter and Jacquizz Rodgers.

Let’s explore the context of the current situation in Atlanta.

*   Quarterback Matt Ryan hasn’t taken the step forward that  people were hoping for, for whatever reason.

*   The fans weren’t happy with a perceived conservatism from former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

*  Turner has 300-plus carries in three of his past four seasons and has just turned 30.

*   Falcons expectations this year compared to those of last year after a blockbuster trade for Julio Jones and expectations of Ryan's next step are probably rather different.

So, Mularkey’s out, Koetter’s in. Same stuff, different day, perhaps?

Not for me. It’s a perception problem of Koetter. You think of him and you think of that Jacksonville offense under head coach Del Rio: run heavy, run first. Which is true up to a point, but with all due respect to our Jacksonville brethren I feel they’d be amongst those to point out that the Jaguars’ offense hasn’t had very many playmakers on their roster. They'd likely also be the very first to voice the assertion that any success that they were ever going to have with their roster would've been through the running game first and the passing game second. I'd disagree with neither of those assertions and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that feels differently.

Koetter has been blamed (rightly or wrongly) for a number of failures in Jacksonville, such as an inability to build off
David Garrard ’s best ever season in Koetter’s first year, or to help progress the career of Blaine Gabbert . As well as being called out for conservative playcalling.

That might sound a bit like an all-too-familiar song to those in Atlanta who count themselves amongst Mularkey’s detractors. I’d actually go to bat for Koetter here, though. It’s really not that difficult and I’m surprised he’s being viewed by some sections of the Atlanta fan base and press as a bad hire.

For a start, he did get the best out of Garrard.

What’s often forgotten is that in the following year after Garrard's banner year under Koetter they lost both their starting guards to Injured Reserve and that they also had their starting tackle tragically gunned down (14 bullets and paralyzed from the waist down for life).

Here are a list of the “playmakers” (and I use the term in it's loosest and most generous sense) he's had to utilize to build a legitimate vertical offense:

Ernest Wilford
Dennis Northcutt
Reggie Williams
Matt Jones

Troy Williamson
Mike Sims-Walker
Torry Holt (at 32 years old)
Mike Thomas

Jarrett Dillard
Jason Hill
Chastin West
Kasim Osgood


Between mercurial talent (which is being diplomatic at best!), lack of pro-caliber players, injuries, age and even drug-related issues, there’s really not a whole lot to have worked with. Even before you get to some of the truly bad decisions made with quarterback personnel.

An offensive coordinator can only work with what he’s got. As much as we'd all like miracles they really aren't in their purview and that's precisely what it would've taken to have produced a viable passing alternative in north Florida for the past half a decade.

Koetter is a perfect fit for the personnel in Atlanta.

About the only thing that would put the cherry on the cake is perhaps a more mobile quarterback of the sort he's prefered to work with in the past. I’d imagine that’s more than compensated for by the caliber of passer he could have in Ryan.

As an offensive coordinator Koetter likes to uses the run-and-play action to set up a deep passing game. It is to him what a multiple wide receiver base set is to Mike Martz or a power running game for Greg Schiano. If you’re in points-per-reception leagues you won’t always love a Koetter wide receiver, but if you get rewarded by long plays you'll probably be smitten.

As you’ll see from the table I’ve put together to follow Koetter’s career as an offensive coordinator, certain things jump out 

 

*   He uses his backs. A lot. Whether it's closer to a 2:1 or a 5:3 split in terms of rush:pass, he'll usually run first to set things up.

*   He’s not adverse to having a thunder and lightning approach, a specialist do-it-all back or even a platoon involving his quarterback when it comes to running the ball. Where you see a yellow box in both rushing and receiving, it's the same player. Examples include: Tommy Stowers, Mike Jones and Ronnell Kayhill at Missouri or Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville.

*  If he can get a QB rushing play setup, he won't hesitate to call it. Those green boxes on the table not only illustarte the third highest rusher on his teams, but they're also QB's. He’s coached Akili Smith, Rudy Johnson, David Garrard , Tony Grazioli, Phil Johnson and Mike Hart sell. All quarterbacks who are comfortable tucking the ball and taking off – some more than others.

*   He also likes to involve his tight ends in the passing game, which will benefit a playmaker like Tony Gonzalez.

* When controlling a drive he likes to set up a vertical passing game, prefering to land the big punches through play-action rather than “jab” his way upfield in a “dink and dunk” manner when it comes to his receiving plays.

So what does all that mean for Turner?

Well, there is both good news and bad for Turner owner's as there are some eerily reminiscent similarities between the situation Koetter found himself in both Atlanta and Jacksonville upon his arrival.

Primarily, there was already an established featured – if
ageing – back already rostered as well as a young guy envisioned as a relief/change of pace/third down back recently added in the draft. In Jacksonville, it was Fred Taylor and Jones-Drew. In Atlanta it’s Turner and Rodgers.

Taylor Long-term featured running back, 31 years old
Turner – The featured running back in Atlanta, 30 years old

Jones-Drew – Second-round pick acquired the previous year (5-foot-7, 208 pounds)
Rodgers – Fifth-round pick acquired the previous year (5-foot-6, 196 pounds)


Secondly, Koetter had a good offensive line to work with in addition to a good quarterback who can and should improve – especially if given the keys to the no-huddle offense. In Atlanta however he has two wide receivers who are certainly legitimate NFL vertical threats. That's something he was sorely lacking in Jacksonville. They'll also have some pretty good blockers for his bubble screen and draw plays in Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. It's a system Jones-Drew has excelled in, as well as his under-rated ability to run “north /south.”

In the example above, you’ve got a 2WR:2RB:1TE personnel grouping: Roddy White is wide right at split end, Julio Jones the flanker. Opposite him, Tony Gonzalez at Tight End , Michael Turner & Jacquizz Rodgers at Running Back (FB = Turner, TB = Jacquizz)

The first choice the defense has to make is: Should the CB#2 on Julio Jones stay with him - and free the underneath of the coverage or should he stay near the line of scrimmage in run support - hoping the free safety is going to cover Jones in his absence. Even if the OLB comes over to help him, they're still outnumbered 2:3 and the play should develop accordingly providing the blocking players all execute. (Gonzalez, Turner, & Left Tackle versus OLB & CB).

The second choice will be made by the free safety (FS): Does he go across to cover Jones (which will be dictated by actions of the CB#2)? If he does, that would leave Roddy White in single coverage which is a dangerous situation that the Falcons have exploited time and time again. Should the FS go across to double up on White, then Jones is home free - no CB & no FS cover.

It's just the sort of vertical passing game Koetter loved setting up in college.

No offensive play is fool proof but it will give an indication of what the new offensive coordinator in Atlanta could be about; trying to set-up single man coverage by using the run and screens to commit defenders. It's a system he's used for well over 20yrs.

There is a point in fantasy football where past performances don't account for much and some indicators not a heck of a lot more, either. This year, the days of Turner being anywhere close to leading the league in carries have well and truly set sail.

People can opine age or injury as the reason, but as you can see from his career he came into the league early and didn’t get much “wear on his tires” of any note until he was 26 years old. That's something that often gets overlooked when debating when – not if – Turner will break down. As I’ve offered in previous forum threads it’s not a concern I share. My concern is Koetter and how he uses his backs.

He did it at Missouri, he did it at Boston College, he did it with Jacksonville. He'll certainly try to do it in Atlanta.

So what are we looking at in terms of carries?

Atlanta had 818 offensive plays with a split of 453-to-365 run-to-pass. I’d expect that to skew only slightly more in favor of the run. It’s not like Mularkey was a pass-centric guy anyway. With a pretty close 5-to-3 ratio anyway, we may as well call it 500-to-300 for the Falcons next year.

Perhaps, ultimately it’ll be head coach Mike Smith who will have the last word on any potential of a rally for Turner and his fantasy owners in 2012?

 

We want to keep [Turner] as our feature back, but we need to make sure some of the other guys get carries as well … I think the thing we have to do as Michael gets a little older is to start putting him on a ‘pitch count’ in terms of the number of carries,” Smith said.

 

We can all prognosticate how those run plays will be carved up between Turner, Rodgers and Jason Snelling (and even Ryan I suspect will scramble more than he used to, though it certainly shouldn‘t ever be a feature) till the sun goes down in several different time zones. Feel free.

 

I wouldn't expect Rodgers to jump up to Maurice Jones-Drew's level of output until next year. Jones-Drew had already had a year of 150 carries before Koetter landed in Jacksonville, which made his job a lot easier. If the projected amount of almost 500 carries for the Atlanta rushing game in 2012 is close to the mark, then I'd expect that his near 60 touches & 20 receptions would easily double as he emerges into the void left by Turner's diminishing role.

Don't believe me? Here's the response to how Atlanta plans to resolve the scaling back of Turner's role:

Jacquizz figures into that quite a bit. We drafted him to be a change-of-pace back and we found out very quickly that he’s a guy that is more than a change-of-pace back. Even though he’s short, he’s not little. He’s a guy we feel like we can integrate more into our offense.’’ said H.C. Mike Smith

In the right scheme I'm more than "bullish" about Rodger's prospects. Koetter's scheme is - at least on paper - a much, much better fit for his chances of production than Mularkey's ever could've been.


The Fall:

Whichever way you look at it, the writing for Turner is on the wall for 2013. He’ll be 31 in 2013, if age means anything in relation to his late start in the league. More importantly, those snaps that started to decrease in 2012 will continue to bleed away in 2013, and whilst by now you could easily debate the amount of reps he will take as the potential starter,   you certainly wouldn’t be arguing for it to increase.

In losing snaps we may actually see an increase in his “shelf life,” but it’s difficult to envision a scenario where either Atlanta would want to pay $5.5 million this year (as well as $5 million in 2013) for the diminishing returns in both his playing time, his snaps and his yardage, or that FF owners will care much either way by that point.

In the interim, he’s got an uphill struggle on his hands against a talented back, an offensive coordinator that will be looking for new ways to integrate Rodgers, a head coach who wants to scale back his role and ultimately a general manager that won’t want to pay the contract he’s due (as it currently stands). It won't be easy.

Fred Taylor still managed to shoulder around 220 and 140 carries in the two years following Koetter's arrival for a combined 1,750+ yards and six touchdowns. I think Turner has more left in the tank at this stage of his career and an 850-yard, seven touchdown performance in 2012 based on his career yards per carry to-date and dependant on goal-line and red zone vultures, as a last "hurrah" of sorts for owners, isn't out of the question.

Make no doubt about it though, It's a changing of the guard in Atlanta.