It's hard to believe that just a year ago football pundits insisted on referring to the Atlanta Falcons as a run-first kind of team.
Of course, that was the identity forced into the media's psyche in 2008 when Michael Turner, in his first year with the team, compiled 1,669 yards and 17 touchdowns on a whopping 376 carries. That was quarterback Matt Ryan's rookie year as well, and the emphasis on running game and an efficient passing attack did pay dividends as the Falcons surpassed expectations with an 11-5 season.
Three things have happened since then, however, that have sparked an identity change with this Falcons team. It's appearing more likely each week that the Falcons might want to make a change at tailback.
And, that's not to say Turner simply can't play up to the standards of a starting NFL tailback. It might be saying he doesn't fit the system anymore.
Since 2008, Matt Ryan has evolved into an elite quarterback. Anyone who wants to argue that knows what to do. Additionally, Atlanta has shown increased tendencies to run to set up the pass, rather than using the run as the primary avenue for yards and first downs.
Finally, the offensive line—for whatever reason—has shown serious ineptitude when it comes to run-blocking schemes, which has seemingly been more evident against the Saints. Just think back to the controversial failed 4th-and-1 in overtime in the Georgia Dome last year, which lead to a New Orleans win.
Sunday might have been the final straw for the offensive line, and, in turn, for Turner. That might not sound fair on Turner's behalf, but humor the following.
The Falcons are in fact a pass-first team. When the media finally catches on to this change is beyond me, but Matt Ryan threw 52 times against the Saints on Sunday and is on pace to throw 624 passes this year.
That's an average of 39 passes per game. Run-based teams are going to hover more in the low 20s.
Ryan flourishes out of the shotgun formation, which is not a formation you can run out of with purpose like you can on the college level.
This evolution of Ryan's optimal passing ability has actually divided Atlanta's tendencies in a way that makes the offense more predictable—and yes, Dirk Koetter inherited this and actually has, so far, made a better situation of it.
Atlanta basically gives away when it wants to throw. The good news is Ryan is so good, and has such an awesome receiving corps, that nobody can stop the passing game, regardless.
So, when the Falcons do go under center, more times than not the defense knows what is coming. This isn't to say the Falcons don't disguise plays, and that defenses still have doubts, but it has appeared Atlanta has not done as much of a good job of scaring the other team in situations that favor a run play.
More times than not, Atlanta succeeds in obvious passing downs. And, more times than not, Atlanta fails on obvious run downs.
This is all because of Turner's ability, which isn't a lot of flash and dash. He's not a tailback that hits the hole hard at all—he might have one of the slowest first steps in NFL history for a starting rock-toter.
Turner's lack of agility means he relies heavily on his offensive line to provide a channel into the second level. If Turner doesn't get a clear path to the second level, where his body type becomes a major problem for defenders, he's nothing but two yards and a cloud of dust.
But, the offensive line's run-blocking ability has been horrid, which complicates Atlanta's mythical running attack even more.
The combination of an offensive line that can't get push and a running back that can't do much at the line of scrimmage besides falling forward makes for a running game that scares noone. This is why Atlanta has constantly failed to get the tough yards in the past few seasons.
What fans keep seeing is a little spark, and that spark is coming from the shoes of second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers.
Rodgers, at 5'6" and 196 lbs., doesn't have the body type of a starting tailback—in a conventional offense.
But, with the way the Falcons offense has evolved, Rodgers seems to fit the mold much more than Turner when it comes to what Atlanta is actually good at.
And, Rodgers has proven that he can make some plays between the tackles. He's got great acceleration and good agility—great agility, compared to Turner. He's got a Warrick Dunn type body that makes for a tougher target for defensive lineman.
And, most importantly, Rodgers is a guy that can pose a threat as a receiver, whereas Turner can't. His statistics, as of now, are nothing great, but fans keep seeing much more in Rodgers' functionality in this offense compared to Turner's.
Who should start in Atlanta's backfield?
Atlanta is a great passing team, and a great no-huddle team. If Rodgers can pick up the ins and outs of the offense, it might be time to consider him a temporary starter 'A' in this offense.
This is not to say Turner's days on this team are done. But, until the Falcons can bring back an offensive line that can create push, they have no future or faith in the ground-and-pound style attack that Turner forces into your offense.
Rodgers, and even back up tailback Jason Snelling, are more versatile athletes who can make this offense open up a little more.
And, if the Falcons can build a strong offensive line in the near future, Turner could no doubt make a comeback.
As for now, though, he's been nothing but a waste of downs. It may not be entirely his fault, but it's the reality.