FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If you saw the Atlanta Falcons in minicamp exactly a year ago and saw them Friday morning, there was one striking difference.
There was less of Michael Turner this time around -- and that's a wonderful thing.
Without ever using the word "fat," Turner pretty much admitted he was precisely that a year ago, and it might have led to his slow start last season and could have been a factor in the ankle injury that popped up just as it seemed he had straightened things out. That threw Atlanta's entire season off track, and even though the Falcons went 9-7 and had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, there was a sense of disappointment because they missed the playoffs.
"I was big in the shoulders and the arms," Turner said. "My face was plump."
"Plump" isn't a stretch. When Turner showed up at minicamp last year, a couple of writers joked that he was looking like he was getting ready to make a switch to fullback. The team never said much about it, but it was obvious Turner had put on considerable weight after rushing for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns and carrying the 2008 Falcons to the playoffs in his first season with the team.
"I probably didn't do enough conditioning," Turner said. "I had the Pro Bowl and everything like that and I'd never been through that before. I probably got off track a little bit. I came back a little sluggish last year. I don't want to make excuses for what happened last year, but I just want to make sure that's not an issue."
Turner and coach Mike Smith didn't want to get into specific numbers when talking weight. Turner is listed at 244 pounds on the current Atlanta roster. Team sources said he's very close to that number and plans to play at around 235 to 240 this season. That's a good bit less than Turner was at this time a year ago. Those same sources said Turner was close to 260 at last year's minicamp.
"I don't know that the weight was all that much different last year," Turner said. "But it was a different look of the weight. I'll put it like that. This is a better look for me right now and it's going to get better from here on out. I'm more fit now. I want to be as cut as possible. I'm eating right and staying away from the bad stuff. I'm from Chicago and we've got those greasy pizzas that I love. But I've got that stuff out and I've made it a habit to just eat better all the way around and I've worked very hard at my conditioning."
There's no doubt Turner's worked hard at his conditioning. You can see it in his body and it's obvious he's approaching this season with a strong desire to get back to running the way he did in 2008.
There's a story behind the scenes that people outside of Flowery Branch don't really know. As the Falcons broke after last season, Smith essentially banned the players from coming to the facility for a month. The coach told the players to just rest up and get away from football.
On the very first day that players were allowed back into the workout room, Turner was the first guy there. Other players straggled in before the official opening of the team's conditioning program, but Turner hasn't stopped.
During the offseason, the Falcons show up for conditioning four days a week. Turner's been showing up five days a week.
"Michael's in better shape than he was at this point a year ago," Smith said. "I don't know if conditioning had anything to do with his injury or not and he had his weight where we wanted it at the start of the season. He just got behind in his schedule last year because of the Pro Bowl and he had to work hard to catch up. We talked some about conditioning this year, but it wasn't like I had to order him to focus on it. He already was planning on doing it. He got an earlier start on it this year and it's definitely paid dividends. He looked great out there this morning and I saw him making cuts and looking as sharp as he ever has."
That's great news throughout Flowery Branch and all of Atlanta. There were a lot of reasons the Falcons fell short of the playoffs last season, but the biggest one of all was probably the fact that Turner wasn't healthy.
Turner missed five full games and wasn't completely healthy for three or four more. His numbers dipped to 871 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 178 carries. Backups Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling were decent as fill-ins, but the Falcons didn't have the consistency in their running game that they did in 2008. That took a toll on the rest of the offense and the defense probably spent more time on the field than the coaches would have liked.
"Oh, man, you don't know how great it was to see him back out there today," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We just need to keep him healthy because he makes such a big difference. I know Mike's worked really hard this offseason and has done a great job. It's a personal thing for him. He feels like he's done things better this year. He looks good. He's on top of his flexibility. He's doing all the things he needs to do to be able to play all 16. If he can play all 16, we're going to be in good shape."
Keeping Turner on the field for 16 games is a goal for the Falcons because it means they'll probably be in contention for a playoff spot. But there are other numbers the Falcons want to keep an eye on with Turner and those don't involve his weight or the number of games he plays.
Even before last season started, the Falcons had made it clear they didn't want Turner carrying anywhere near the 376 times he did in 2008. The Falcons talked a lot about getting Snelling and Norwood more involved and how last year's arrival of tight end Tony Gonzalez could lessen Turner's carry total a little. But we never truly got to see that formula play out last season.
Turner started slowly, the Falcons lost receiver Harry Douglas to injury and the offense never really got into the rhythm the coaches imagined. The coaches are seeing a healthy Turner now and they're imagining big things for the upcoming season.
"We, as a coaching staff, have do a better job of managing his touches," Smith said. "We're not going to go into a game saying he's only going to get X amount of carries, but we do have to set some parameters because of the long season."
Keeping Turner healthy and not overworking him is the plan. If the Falcons can find that balance, they just might find themselves back in the playoffs. In Turner's mind, they're well on the way.
"I wanted to cut weight as much as possible before we even got to this minicamp," Turner said. "I feel like I've got to carry the load this year. I want to be out there for the full 16. I want to be in game shape as fast as possible. We've just got to keep everybody healthy this year and we'll have a chance to do something special."