Michael Turner finally had his chance to shine last year and he did not disappoint—rushing for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns.
However, if anyone expects Turner to duplicate those numbers next season, they'd better look no further than Jerious Norwood—the Atlanta Falcons other running back of note.
The importance of a healthy and effective offensive line is assumed—as is the continued emergence of Matt Ryan as both a leader and a premier quarterback.
Neither of those is being laid to the wayside as a precursor to more of the same for Michael "The Burner" Turner.
However, assuming both remain intact and effective, Turner will also need an efficient handcuff to maintain the level of play he showed he was capable of last season.
Why? The answer is a simple one, and one that no one with a set of eyes or stats can miss—Michael Turner had 376 carries last season.
That's right, 376.
The fact that he is the primary back has not escaped my attention. He is the premier running back on the Falcons but, if he is to remain so, he cannot have that many carries again next season.
His sustained success demands the presence of an effective secondary back who can spell him when needed without the team experiencing a significant drop-off in production.
That guy for Atlanta is Jerious Norwood—at least for next season it is, as Norwood is entering a contract year, and it is not expected that he will forgo his shot at a starting nod should he be given the opportunity by another team the end of next season as a free agent.
It would be easy to point to the guys who are the quintessential workhorse and say a second back is not needed. Turner can thrive on his own again minus the help of another back—Norwood or otherwise.
After all, look at Tomlinson and Peterson—no argument there as every rule has exceptions.
However, consider these backs from the last five seasons and how each of their stats took a dive in the following year after amassing 320+ carries:
- 2007: Willie Parker had 321 carries for 1,316 yards and 2 touchdowns. The following year, he missed time due to injury and only appeared in 11 games for 791 yards and 5 touchdowns.
- 2006: Steven Jackson had 1,528 yards and 15 touchdowns. The following year, he missed 4 games due to injury and saw his yard per game average decrease.
- 2005: Shaun Alexander rushed for 1,880 yards on 370 carries. The following year, he missed 6 games to injury and saw his yard per carry average drop from 5.1 to 3.6.
- 2004: Corey Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards on 345 carries. The following year he missed 4 games to injury and saw his rushing averages take a decline.
- 2003: Jamal Lewis rushed for 2,077 yards on 387 carries. The following season, he missed 4 games to injury and saw his yards per carry go from 5.3 to 4.3.
There's a trend here that seems to say that big-time carries one year equals a decline the next.
Each of the backs mentioned above went to the Pro Bowl in their respective years. However, the years that followed saw a decline in either overall production, yards per carry (YPC), or games played.
The most effective backs in the long term have very good back-ups.
Carolina has DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
San Diego has LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles.
The New York Giants had Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward.
In every instance, the premier back was still able to be productive and amass top-tier yardage minus the above-average carries.
Atlanta has to utilize Michael Turner a bit less if they want to secure his future as their premier back and keep him fresh for the grueling NFL season—Norwood has the ability to be that guy.
The Falcons may not see him as starting material, but his stats are on par with at least a handful of guys who were starting in other places last season.
As a matter of fact, his 51.7 total yards per game was better than the Jets Leon Washington and the Titans LenDale White—both of whom were spot starters in last season.
At 26-years of age, Turner is young and capable of having another stellar season—there is no denying his talent and worth to the Atlanta Falcons offense.
However, he had more carries last season than in in his entire stint as a Charger. He is bound to get tired at some point and the "Burner" could just become burned out.
If the Falcons can lessen the load by six carries per game, Turner would be on pace for roughly 280 carries next season—based on his career yards per carry average, he would amass roughly 1,350 yards.
Extrapolation is always dangerous but I doubt that any GM in the league would be disappointed with that total.
Even better, Norwood would likely benefit from having an additional 96 carries—possibly allowing him to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career.
This is all speculation and there's no way to be sure about the outcome of a few less carries for Turner and a few more for Norwood, but the one thing that is certain is too many carries can be a bad thing.
Consider this last statistic, courtesy of The Sporting News: between the years 2000-07, running backs who recorded 345 carries or more either suffered a serious injury or saw a dramatic decrease in production—or both in some instances–18 times or roughly 82 percent.
If that's true, then perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to cross your fingers, and hope that Turner proves to be not only a Burner but an iron man as well.