Role reversal: Turner ready to seize long-awaited opportunity

ATLANTA -- For the record, on the afternoon of March 1, the Georgia Force lost an Arena League game to the Dallas Desperados, 51-41. Unofficially, consider it a victory for Arthur Blank.

He's the man who owns the Force and the Atlanta Falcons, who might have been the biggest winners of all that day. As the Force and Desperadoes played, running back Michael Turner, perhaps the biggest prize in free agency, was sitting in The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"The fans were all yelling at me to sign with Atlanta,'' Turner said. "They were all telling me that they wanted me.''

Sure, the offer of $34.5 million (with $15 million guaranteed) over six years played a big role in Turner signing with the Falcons the next day. The same money could have been available elsewhere, but Turner said the ego boost he got that day was a big part of the reason he skipped his other visits and signed with the Falcons.

"There was a poll on the Web site [of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution], where they asked people if the Falcons should sign me,'' Turner said. "They almost all said yes. I saw that and it helped, too.''

Forgive Turner if it sounds like he needed some attention. That's a natural side effect when you spend four years as the backup to future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson with the San Diego Chargers.

With Tomlinson rushing for at least 1,335 yards in each of those seasons and missing only one regular-season game, Turner got a great view from the sidelines and strong tutelage, but very little playing time.

In four seasons, Turner had 228 carries for 1,257 yards and six touchdowns. Along the way, he showed flashes that he could be much more than a backup. In a Week 5 victory at Denver last season, he ran for 147 yards. With Tomlinson banged up, Turner got 43 carries for 164 yards in three postseason games.

All of this was an audition that made teams picture what Turner could do on a full-time basis, and they put him at the top of a free-agency class that was thin after many players re-signed with their own teams. Turner, 26, probably could have had his pick of landing spots.

But he made only one visit before signing with a team that was 4-12 last season, had its coach (Bobby Petrino) run off to the University of Arkansas and still was scarred by the Michael Vick debacle.

"I came in with an open mind,'' Turner said. "I got here and it just felt like I was home.''

Home no longer includes playing behind Tomlinson and a strong offensive line, and it sure doesn't include the almost-automatic playoff paycheck from San Diego. But the Falcons offered Turner the opportunity to be a cornerstone of a franchise, and that was a good start.

At 5-foot-10 and 237 pounds, Turner is expected to get the bulk of the carries, although Jerious Norwood will get some.

"Playing with LaDainian and [fullback] Lorenzo Neal was a great experience,'' Turner said. "But I'm a running back and that means that time is ticking especially fast. It was frustrating at times in San Diego because I wanted to grow as a football player and there wasn't room for me to grow.''

There's plenty of room in Atlanta because the Falcons released 10,000-yard career rusher Warrick Dunn soon after signing Turner. There's uncertainty at quarterback as the Falcons face the dilemma of using No. 3 overall draft pick Matt Ryan right from the start or letting him sit for a bit behind Chris Redman or Joey Harrington.

Either way, the Falcons will have to rely heavily on the running game, and that should translate into a lot of carries for Turner. Still recovering from surgery for what he said was a minor shoulder injury suffered in December, Turner didn't take part in Atlanta's first minicamp, but he expects to be 100 percent healthy for training camp.

"The one good thing about sitting in San Diego was that my body didn't take a lot of punishment,'' Turner said. "I've been in the league for four years, but it wasn't like I was getting hit like a starting running back for very much of that time.''

A fifth-round pick out of Northern Illinois in 2004, Turner already is doing something he never did in San Diego: He's in the process of buying a house in Atlanta.

"I'm putting down roots and everything,'' Turner said with a laugh.

But the Falcons are counting on those roots to grow quickly. They considered the possibility of targeting Arkansas running back Darren McFadden in the draft before deciding on Turner. The logic behind that decision was a little ironic.

A rookie might struggle at the beginning, and the Falcons wanted someone they could count on from the start to be their feature back.

"I've always wanted to be the guy,'' Turner said. "But I was always waiting for my turn and it was never going to come in San Diego. Now, my chance has finally arrived.''

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.