FLOWERY BRANCH — Michael Turner is getting his swagger back.
He wants the Atlanta Falcons to know he can carry a heavy workload this season. The right ankle sprain that essentially ended his 2009 campaign in mid-November has fully healed.
Turner spent the offseason training vigorously to regain the burst that helped him rush for a career-best 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns the year before.
Well, the burst was back on the Falcons’ first day in full pads Monday.
"At this point, yeah, I do feel quicker," Turner said. "I feel faster, stronger. It’s kind of tough to say right now, but I feel like I’m in it for the long haul now."
Despite trading in March 2009 for perennial Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta’s offense fell short of its goals last year.
Quarterback Matt Ryan missed two games with a toe injury. No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas was out the entire season with knee surgery. No. 2 running back Jerious Norwood, who suffered a hip flexor and a concussion, was sidelined for six games.
Gonzalez and two-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White both stayed healthy and combined for 2,020 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns. However, without Turner, the Falcons lacked some of the identity that helped them finish 11-5 and earn a playoff spot the year before.
"Some years you have to fight through injuries," Turner said. "It just happened that it was my year. It’s unfortunate, but I just have to move on from it and focus on this year."
Turner has heard all the wear-and-tear stories from aging and retired running backs. They tell the compact, 244-pound Turner that one day he will wake up after a game and feel half-dead.
As far as Turner is concerned, that day is in the very distant future.
"The older vets say it all the time. ‘There’s going to be a point in your life where there’s some days you just don’t feel like getting up,’ "Turner said. "But I haven’t had that feeling. That’s fortunate for me, but the first four years I didn’t play a lot, so I’ve still got a whole lot of years left in me hopefully."
After leading the NFL with 376 carries in 2008, Turner knew some people were predicting his body would break down quickly.
He spent the previous four years as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego and signed a lucrative contract with Atlanta despite having only 228 career rushing attempts.
So when Turner averaged only 3.4 yards per carry through the first six games, critics wondered if he’d lost a burst at the line of scrimmage.
It seemed Turner wasn’t hitting holes as aggressively and breaking tackles as easily as he did the year before.
By Week 8 in New Orleans, Turner flipped a proverbial switch and gouged the Saints for 151 yards and one TD on 20 carries. He put the first part of the season to rest.
"It was a different way we were running the football," Turner said. "It was different play-calling. There were a lot of factors that played into it, and I just gave a better effort on my part to break more tackles and make those plays that sometimes aren’t always blocked clean. You know, defenses were loading up against us the first couple of games, so we had to make a point."
Unfortunately, the Falcons were in the midst of a 2-6 streak that eventually ended their playoff hopes, but Turner seemed to have regained his swagger.
Over the next six quarters, he gained 277 yards on 27 carries, but Turner went down with an ankle sprain just before halftime at Carolina and did not return.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith considers the ankle sprain to be an aberration.
"I think one of the reasons Michael doesn’t feel too bad on Mondays is that he’s a compact runner," Smith said. "When he runs, basically it’s shoulder pads and knees. There’s not a whole lot of surface to hit. He’s got a low center of gravity, and that takes some of the wear and tear off of him. Last year’s injury, I don’t think, was based on workload."