September 7, 2010

2008: Turner’s 220 Rushing Yards & Ryan’s Passing Lead Falcons Over Lions

The 2007 NFL season had been a dreadful one for the Atlanta Falcons, both on and off the field. QB Michael Vick had already been a source of some controversy for not better developing his great potential, but his off-field involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring forced his removal from the team and eventual imprisonment. Then, 13 games into the season, first-year Head Coach Bobby Petrino abruptly resigned to return to the college ranks at Arkansas. The Falcons went 4-12 to end up at the bottom of the NFC South.

In the offseason, owner Arthur Blank took steps to revitalize the organization. Thomas Dimitroff, chief of scouting for the Patriots, was hired as general manager. Mike Smith, who had been defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, became the new head coach. In the first round of the draft, the Falcons chose QB Matt Ryan of Boston College. The roster was revamped: RB Michael Turner (pictured above), who had been backing up LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, was acquired as a free agent, as were safety Erik Coleman and PK Jason Elam; CB Domonique Foxworth was picked up in a trade with Denver just before the first game.

The Falcons opened the 2008 season on September 7 at the Georgia Dome against the Detroit Lions. Detroit was coming off its seventh straight losing season, although the 7-9 finish had been the best record of that string. Third year Head Coach Rod Marinelli had revamped both the players and coaching staff in an effort to yield better results.

It didn’t take long for the restructured Atlanta offense to score points. Ryan (pictured below), who had won the starting quarterback job during the preseason, handed off to Turner twice before firing his first regular season NFL pass – a 62-yard touchdown to WR Michael Jenkins. The Falcons scored on their next two possessions as well, on runs by Turner that covered 66 and five yards, and had a 21-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The Lions fought back in the second quarter, controlling the ball for much of the time and scoring two touchdowns on a three-yard run by RB Kevin Smith and 21-yard pass from QB Jon Kitna to WR Roy Williams. Atlanta’s lead was just 21-14 at halftime.

The Falcons took decisive control in the third quarter as Elam kicked a 50-yard field goal and RB Jerious Norwood ran 10 yards for a TD. The Lions scored once more after an eight-play, 75-yard drive capped by Kitna’s one-yard touchdown pass to TE Casey Fitzsimmons. But Atlanta put together a 12-play possession that was completed by Elam’s 25-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and the Lions were unable to come back. The final score was 34-21 in favor of the Falcons.

Atlanta set a team record in outrushing the Lions, 318 yards to 70. Michael Turner also set an individual club record as he gained 220 yards on 22 carries with the two touchdowns. It was also a record for a player in his first game with an NFL team.

Matt Ryan completed 9 of 13 passes for 161 yards with a TD and none picked off. WR Roddy White and Jerious Norwood both caught two passes, for 54 and six yards, respectively, while Jenkins had the most receiving yards for Atlanta with his lone reception, the 62-yard TD.

Detroit had to go to the air far more often as Jon Kitna threw 33 passes and completed 24 of them for 262 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. WR Calvin Johnson was the leading receiver with 7 catches for 107 yards. Kevin Smith gained 48 yards on 16 carries with the one TD.

A delighted Mike Smith, having achieved his first head coaching win at any level, said “We wanted a fast start, and I thought we did that.” The rookie quarterback, Ryan, showed emotion (after throwing his first touchdown pass, he knocked over C Todd McClure while charging down the field in celebration). He also showed poise and leadership. As Turner said afterward, “He didn’t seem like a rookie. He took control of the huddle…He was a real drill sergeant out there. He was letting everyone know who was in control.”

The Falcons built upon their opening game win to go 11-5, finishing second in the NFC South and earning a wild card berth in the postseason; they lost to the Arizona Cardinals in the opening round. The loss for Detroit was the first of many as the Lions ended up with an 0-16 record.

Michael Turner was the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 1699 yards on 376 carries for a 4.5-yard average and 17 touchdowns. He had a second 200-yard rushing game during the course of the season as well and received consensus 1st team All-Pro honors as well as selection to the Pro Bowl. Matt Ryan started all 16 games and passed for 3440 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He ranked fourth in the league in yards per attempt (7.9) and second in yards per completion (13.0) and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press.