"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
28 Jul 2008
by Doug Farrar
There are times when player analysis is a review, and other times when it becomes a prospectus. We use the disclaimer that short windows of performance are not season or career indicators, but when you're talking about a player who is about to get his first significant playing time -- well, short windows are all you have.
This was the issue when I wrote about Aaron Rodgers's three-quarter performance against the Dallas Cowboys last November, and it is this way when analyzing Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner, one of the most highly-prized free agents of the last few years.
Once upon a time, Turner was a hot small-school prospect out of Northern Illinois. NFLDraftScout.com ranked him as the sixth-best collegiate running back of the 2004 draft class after he rushed for 3,563 yards in his junior and senior seasons combined and ran a sub-4.5 40 at the Scouting Combine at 5-foot-10 and 237 pounds. Selected in the fifth round by the Chargers, Turner was a little-used player behind LT2, but the flashes of brilliance were enough to draw interest from several teams while Turner was playing out his rookie contract. He put together some intriguing numbers through his first four seasons -- 5.5 yards per carry on 228 rushing attempts, with runs for over 70 yards in each of the last three seasons. The perception: Here was the next great running back, hidden behind a slam-dunk future Hall of Famer who was also one of the most durable players in the game. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith tried dangling Turner for first- and third-round draft picks for a while, but decided to hang on to his toy. When Turner became an unrestricted free agent in 2008, someone was bound to splurge.
The Atlanta Falcons, desperate for a total makeover on and off the field, made Turner their big free-agent ticket in March. They signed him to a six-year, $34.5 million contract with $15 million guaranteed. The team's new coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, saw Turner as the centerpiece of their new power running game. They pulled the trigger on this deal after watching Turner's 2007 postseason, when he rushed 43 times for 164 yards in San Diego's three playoff games -- wins over the Titans and Colts and the 21-12 loss to the Patriots that ended both San Diego's season and Turner's time as a backup.
We'll put Turner's performance against the Pats under the microscope and see what it reveals. Then, we'll widen the view and talk about the contract and its implications.
New England 21, San Diego 12
Though New England's overall defense seemed less invincible after Rosevelt Colvin's season-ending foot injury in Week 12, their run defense was very solid in the postseason. Against Jacksonville, San Diego, and the Giants, the Patriots put up run defense DVOA ratings of -25.3%, -10.5%, and -20.2%, respectively. They allowed less than four yards per carry against the Jags and Giants, while the Chargers had a 4.73 yards per carry average in the AFC Championship Game. Turner had 17 carries in this game because Tomlinson lasted two possessions alternating with Turner and Darren Sproles. After that, he was seen mostly on the sidelines behind a blank facemask visor, with the media entertaining all sorts of speculation. (Quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates also missed time with various injuries.)
Turner also had 17 carries in the divisional win over the Colts the week before. Tomlinson left that game after seven carries with a bruised left knee. Turner gained 71 yards against Indy, and 65 against New England. His longest run against the Colts was 19 yards; his longest against the eventual AFC champions was 12 yards. Pretty similar results. Let's see how it happened against the Pats.
From the Inside
Dave Te' Thomas, who now writes the pre-draft scouting reports for NFL.com, wrote for NFLDraftScout.com in 2004 that two of Turner's primary characteristics as a college runner were a lack of top-level burst, and an ability to turn on the jets over time with a free lane in front him. I take that to mean that Turner lacked short-area quickness (either straight ahead or side-to-side), which is what I saw in this game. His default read seems to be either gap outside center, or an occasional shake outside the left guard. He seems to take an inordinate amount of time with runs that develop off-tackle. Right guard Mike Goff will pull left pretty frequently, and motion left outside left tackle Marcus McNeill presnap once in a while. I saw Turner run behind both guard motions in this game.
Turner displayed a smooth running style when the line created lanes for him. With 11:49 left in the first quarter, San Diego lined up in an offset I with fullback Lorenzo Neal, and Turner headed left with the handoff. Neal sealed linebacker Adalius Thomas outside, left guard Kris Dielman engaged end Richard Seymour inside, and Goff, pulling left, did the same with linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Receiver Vincent Jackson (whose willingness and ability to block really impressed me in this game) chipped free safety James Sanders downfield, and Turner rumbled for five yards before Rodney Harrison came up and made the stop.
Turner's leg drive and ability to extend plays, were evident on his most productive play of the day. With 6:55 left in the first quarter, the Chargers lined up single-back on first-and-10 from their own 40. Center Nick Hardwick took tackle Vince Wilfork out of the play and to the ground. McNeill took end Jarvis Green away from the play outside, and Goff pulled to take Bruschi out again. Jackson chipped cornerback Ellis Hobbs on the edge. Turner headed left, got past Wilfork's outstretched hand and Harrison's tackle attempt, and fought for extra yardage after Thomas and Sanders tried to wrap him up. Turner broke two tackles on this play and displayed a good level of straight-ahead toughness.
However, what separates the elite power backs from the average is the ability to make things happen without textbook blocking, and that's what I didn't see with Turner. For every sashay through a free lane, there were two pile-pushers up the middle with no bounce outside or sneaking through seams. The downturn in productivity when Andrew Pinnock spelled Neal for certain plays was graphic and disconcerting. Neal has been one of the NFL's best blockers, regardless of position, whereas Pinnock blocks like a guy 30 pounds lighter than he really is. That's Pinnock's problem, but Turner's inability to transcend less-than-amazing blocking is now Atlanta's.
With 12:47 left in the second quarter, the Chargers had first-and-10 from the New England 39. The Pats had five on the line, and Turner had a lane between Hardwick and Dielman, but Bruschi shed Pinnock's "block" and brought Turner down after a 4-yard gain. One minute later, Turner's 1-yard gain on first-and-9 from the New England 8 was due to Pinnock's inability to contain Thomas. Turner looked like he wanted to bounce outside for a brief moment, but he had to head back in, where Ty Warren was waiting for him.
Sometimes, Turner will fail to take an available outside lane, as he did halfway through the second quarter. After New England's Kelly Washington volleyballed a Pats punt out of the end zone, starting the Chargers off at their own 4, San Diego set up in an I-formation, then motioned to an offset I with Neal in the backfield. Neal, as he did consistently through the game, took Thomas out at the edge. Dielman pinched Jarvis Green inside, and Goff pulled left to deal with the middle defenders. Turner had a hole between Neal and Dielman, and he didn't take it. He cut back inside, where Green and Wilfork stopped him. Turner got 4 yards on the play, but more were available. Vincent Jackson even had Sanders blocked out at the second level. Turner practically had a police escort outside, but you get the feeling after watching him enough that he might not have optimal faith in his own outside speed.
Of course, the one time he did bang it outside, Junior Seau stopped him dead in his tracks. This is a signature Seau play; I saw him do it to Brandon Jacobs in New England's regular-season finale/Super Bowl preview as well. On third-and-1 from the New England 4 and 9:22 left in the third quarter, Seau shot the left center gap on a delayed run blitz as Turner was looking for something outside, and busted him for a loss of two. As we detailed in the Championship Round of Audibles at the Line, New England was deadly with key third-down stops on this day, and this was Seau's contribution. Another field goal instead of a touchdown for San Diego, and the clock on the Chargers' season -- not to mention Michael Turner's time as an NFL backup -- was ticking.
What Does it All Mean?
Several things stand out with the Turner deal:
Let's take them one at a time. Turner hasn't proven anything in the NFL beyond the ability to entice several different front offices with a skill set that intrigues from a distance. That is not to say that he's a bad player; it's more to say that we don't know what kind of player he is. When Marshall Faulk first talked about the "Breather Effect" on the NFL Network's 2008 Combine coverage as it related to Arkansas back Felix Jones putting up gaudy YPC behind Darren McFadden, it made us ask the question: When are these numbers in small doses as much about defenses easing up when the big guy is out of the picture? What we found is that there is very little correlation between small-sample success and long-term marquee productivity. One does not foretell the other.
When Turner and Jerious Norwood are in the same backfield, or alternating playing time with fullback Ovie Mughelli blocking for them, what will we see? If 2007 plays true to form, we'll see Norwood and his $631,166 2008 salary cap figure out-producing Turner and his $3.75 million cap hit. The money dictates a different carry percentage than the numbers do. Turner finished first in DVOA among running backs in 2006, when the San Diego offensive line finished first in Adjusted Line Yards, 10+ Rank, and Stuffed Rank. When the line plummeted to 24th in ALY in 2007, Turner's DVOA went right along with it (you'll have to scroll to the bottom of the page to find him), while Tomlinson still ranked second in DYAR and 11th in DVOA. Apparently, the Falcons didn't think a mid-round draft pick could mirror this type of production.
Meanwhile, in one of the more interesting statistical oddities in recent memory, Norwood finished first in DVOA last year among running backs with at least 100 rushes, despite the fact that Atlanta's offensive line ranked dead last in Adjusted Line Yards. It will be a while before you see anyone do that again. It will also be a while before Atlanta's offensive linemen are challenging for Pro Bowl spots.
We have seen a team with the worst line in football blow big bucks on a running back before -- the aforementioned Cardinals, after finishing 32nd in ALY in 2005, signed ex-Colt Edgerrin James to a four-year, $30 million deal with $11.5 million in first-year bonuses. James went from the league's best run-blocking line to the worst (according to ALY), with predictable results. After firing Dennis Green following the 2006 season, the Cardinals brought in a new coaching staff, including former Steelers line coach Russ Grimm, and have committed much more attention to the line. That's what it takes.
The Falcons aren't the only team this offseason to invest heavily in a back who displayed less behind a better offensive line than an incumbent. The Seahawks signed Julius Jones to a front-loaded, medium-sized deal. and he will lead Seattle's new committee approach. The problem? Longtime Seattle backup Maurice Morris was more productive than Jones in 2007, though Dallas's offensive line ranked higher in ALY. It really isn't possible to add this kind of average, line-dependent production through the draft, especially in one of the more stacked running back classes in recent memory?
The Falcons have decided that the numbers don't tell the story. The hope is that Michael Turner won't make them pay for it in more ways than one.
16 comments, Last at 06 Aug 2008, 10:47am by Hans Steiniger