Before we start pondering how it happened or the precise moment it took place, let’s go ahead and throw out the obvious. Atlanta’s Roddy White is the best wide receiver in the NFC South and one of the best in the NFL.
There, I’ve said it, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized this has been the case for quite some time. You’re welcome to try to pinpoint the exact date that a guy who once seemed headed to being a bust became the best receiver in the NFC South. I couldn’t do it and, when I asked White, neither could he.
Fact is, White has just kind of grown into the role as some other guys have been backed off their claims. Narrow the time frame down from 2007 until today and White has been steadily surging while Carolina’s Steve Smith has been weighed down by a series of quarterback problems. Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant came and went in Tampa Bay. New Orleans’ Marques Colston has had to share Drew Brees’ passes with all those other targets the Saints have.
There is only one NFC South wide receiver who has caught passes for 1,000 yards in each season starting with 2007. That’s White, and he’s at it again. Through three games, he’s second in the league with 25 catches, which has resulted in 258 yards, two touchdowns and a 2-1 start by the Falcons.
“Roddy White is the complete wide receiver,’’ Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said moments after the Falcons recorded one of the bigger regular-season wins in franchise history Sunday with a 27-24 overtime victory against the Saints in the Superdome. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s fast. He runs great routes. He works hard. You couldn’t ask for more in a wide receiver.’’
Funny, because once upon a time, there were people around the league who thought White was going to go down in history as one of the biggest receiver busts ever. Taken out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the first round (27th overall) in 2005, White was seen as a raw talent.
One person who worked for the Falcons at the time White first arrived admitted the brass in Flowery Branch had a huge case of buyer's remorse after they saw White in his first training camp and through most of his first two seasons. That person said there was a moment during White’s rookie season when an assistant coach stood up in a meeting and said White simply wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL and there was no argument in response.
But a strange thing happened after White bumbled his way through a rookie season that featured 29 catches and a second season in which he improved to 30 catches, but zero touchdowns. As the Michael Vick saga was casting a sad shadow over the Falcons and Bobby Petrino was about to do the same, White suddenly became a legitimate NFL wide receiver.
That may be the single bright spot to emerge from a very dark time in franchise history. The more you look at where White is now, the brighter that spot gets. As the world around the Falcons seemed to be crumbling, a convergence of events were taking place that would shock everyone and put White’s career on a good path.
“I guess the easiest way to put it was that I just finally grew up,’’ White said.
That’s the simple way to put it, but White is quick to point out that it was much more complex than that. He’s even quicker to point out that he had some help.
“I’d gone through life just getting by on being a good natural athlete,’’ White said. “That’s the way I approached it my first two years and, in the NFL, it’s not good enough to just be an athlete.’’
As Vick was going and Petrino was coming, two other subtle moves took place that would forever change White’s career for the better. Perhaps the only good move Petrino made in his short stint as the head coach of the Falcons was hiring his younger brother, Paul, to coach wide receivers.
“When coach [Jim] Mora and his guys were here, I was eating a lot of cheeseburgers and going at about 215 [pounds],’’ White said. “When Paul Petrino came in, he sat me down and said, 'You need to get back to where you were in college.' I got back to around 205 to 208 and I suddenly realized I was moving faster and jumping higher. But it wasn’t just that. Paul Petrino worked me so hard and pushed me to string together good practices, go out there and do it every day.’’
Paul Petrino got some help from another source. In 2007, the Falcons brought in veteran wide receiver Joe Horn, in large part because they weren’t sure if White could play. But Horn ended up being part of the reason White has been playing so well in recent years.
“Playing with Joe was the best thing to ever happen to me,’’ White said. “He was a guy who had been to Pro Bowls and he took me under his wing and really taught me what this league is all about. He’s the one who made me realize what’s expected of you if you’re going to be a good pro. He’s the one who taught me that you have to prepare mentally every day and you have to go out and practice hard every day. He’s the one who showed me that this game takes so much more effort than I was putting into it.’’
The results were pretty much instant. In a 2007 season in which the Falcons went through several quarterbacks with little success, White somehow emerged with 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns.
The next year, coach Mike Smith arrived and promptly drafted Ryan, who clicked with White right from the start. White had 88 catches for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008 and 85 catches for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009.
“It was somewhat of a gradual process, but there was a good chemistry between Roddy and me right from the start,’’ Ryan said. “It just keeps getting stronger because Roddy’s a guy that works very hard and he’s always where he’s supposed to be.’’
White’s been to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and there’s no reason to think he won’t be there again.
“The thing with Matt is, he came in from the beginning and was asking what kind of routes I liked running and where I liked getting the ball and things like that,’’ White said. “When you do that, you’re both sort of volunteering ways to get better.’’
In their third season together, Ryan and White have the Falcons off to a fast start. In the past two games (victories against Arizona and New Orleans), the running game has clicked, the passing game has clicked and the rebuilt defense has a faster, more aggressive look.
“The sky really is the limit for this team,’’ White said.
It’s kind of funny that the guy the Falcons once thought couldn’t play is leading the way. He’s soaring on the field and he has become a leader in the locker room. Before every game, there’s a little reminder of the past and how White got to where he is now.
“Before every game, Joe Horn sends a text,’’ White said. “It’s pretty simple. He just says, go out, play hard, play physical and play smart.’’
That’s what White has been doing, and that’s the other strange twist to all this. The guy who once couldn’t go past fast-food restaurants on the way home or stay out of the nightclubs is taking on the role Horn once did.
“You know, it’s hard to find a guy that will share information with you when we’re all competing for jobs,’’ White said. “But Joe did that with me and now I try to do it with Harry Douglas. I look at Harry like my little brother, but I also look at him as what I used to be before Joe came along. I’m always on Harry about working hard every day. The most important thing Joe taught me was that you have to put the game first.’’
White’s been doing that since 2007 and that’s what has put him among the best receivers in the NFL.