Michael Turner is the greatest free agent acquisition in Falcons franchise history. Alex Mack might one day given him a run for his money, but Turner was instrumental in the Falcons going from a laughing-stock in 2007 to a contender during the Mike Smith era in Atlanta. We must go back and look at the amount of great decisions made by the organization in the 2008 NFL offseason first.
Falcons team president Rich McKay hired Thomas Dimitroff away from the New England Patriots to replace him as general manager. Atlanta hired former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith to be Bobby Petrino’s replacement as head coach. The Falcons used its No. 3 overall pick to select quarterback Matt Ryan out of Boston College. And Atlanta took a big gamble on LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup in free agency by signing Turner.
After starring in the MAC for the Northern Illinois Huskies, Turner would be a fourth-round pick by the then-San Diego Chargers. He spent four years in Southern California backing up one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. However, he would need to leave the Chargers organization to both make bank and a name for himself in the NFL.
Atlanta signed Turner to a six-year, $34.5 million contract. For a guy that never had more than 502 rushing yards in a season and just one NFL start on his ledger, Turner shattered expectations with one of the greatest single seasons of all-time in 2008. Turner played in and started all 16 games for the Falcons, carrying the ball a league-best 376 times for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns.
He made his first career trip to the Pro Bowl and was named First-Team All-Pro in his breakout 2008 campaign. After only playing in 11 games in 2009, Turner bounced back with another Pro Bowl season in 2010. He rushed for 1,371 yards on a league-high 334 carries for 12 touchdowns, making his second career trip to the Pro Bowl.
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Turner had another 1,000-yard rushing season left in the tank in 2011 when he got to 1,340 on 301 carries for 11 touchdowns. However, he was starting to breakdown physically in his age-30 season in 2012. In his final NFL season, Turner had 222 carries for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 3.6 yards per attempt was the only time he was below 4.0 in his nine-year NFL career.
Atlanta would release him after the 2012 NFL season and he never played professionally again. In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner had 1,411 carries for 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns. He was within 1,000 yards of Falcons’ all-time leader Gerald Riggs in that department. Turner remains the Falcons’ franchise leader in rushing touchdowns with 60.
To think that in five seasons with the Falcons he had at least 10 rushing touchdowns each year is beyond astounding. “The Burner’ was both powerful and relentless with the ball in his hands. His peak in Atlanta arguably coincided with the best years of the Smith era. Once he was replaced with Steven Jackson in 2013, it was only a matter of time before Smitty was on his way out of town.
While Atlanta has had good production out of its running backs in recent years in the form of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Turner was simply a more dominant runner in his prime. His 2008 season was on par with the outstanding 1998 campaign of Jamal Anderson with The Dirty Birds. Though he didn’t play out his entire Falcons contract, Turner was nothing short of a sensational free agent pickup by Atlanta back in 2008.