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Less rowdy Roddy White taking game to a new level

Falcons wide receiver Roddy White answered the phone: "Ocho quatro."

Three years ago, maybe not even that long, I would have chalked this up as another simple moment for White, whose immaturity -- in a non-destructive, but more childish manner -- matched his incredible athletic gifts. I didn't go there because White, whose jersey number is '84,' is a totally different person now, and therefore a totally different receiver.

Instead of his remark being some neo-twist on a "knock-knock" joke, I knew White was taking yet another dig at Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, who talked a big game heading into Sunday's 39-32 loss at Atlanta, unsettling White.

White opted to take the bait and counter Ochocinco's pre-game provocation with some tough words to the local media and on his new website But like much of what White's done in his career, it pretty much went unnoticed.

Only those who have watched his growth on and off the field -- I covered White for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he was drafted in 2005 through 2007 -- can truly respect what he's done to statistically lead all NFL receivers in yards this season and evolve into someone who can finally be taken seriously.

That includes off the field and in the locker room.

White, a 6-foot, 212-pound specimen, has 54 catches, an NFL-best 747 yards and five touchdowns. He's coming off an 11-catch, 201-yard, two-touchdown game in which he scorched the Bengals as Atlanta improved to 5-2. He got the better of Chad in a lot of ways.

He's hot right now for sure -- hotter than ever. That's saying something, too. White seems well on his way to surpassing 1,200 yards receiving for the fourth straight year, during which he has caught a total of 29 touchdowns and been to two Pro Bowls. That's in a run-first offense with a multitude of weapons who each get their touches, meaning White is truly capitalizing on every opportunity.

"I'm just playing with that extra effort," White said. "I'm doing everything at full speed -- everything. Practice, games, every route I run. Everything."

Except live.

It took White two seasons to blossom and, more than that, to understand what it took to be good. In speaking to current and past coaches who've had their turns with White, his coming of age is something to behold. Current Vikings receivers coach George Stewart told me he's "so proud of [White]," adding that it sometimes takes time for things to click.

Stewart worked harder with White than just about any coach I've ever seen work with a player. He tried everything he could to get White to be good, but it didn't pay off. White dropped passes routinely and rarely drew enough confidence of then-coach Jim Mora to trust him enough to be a primary threat. In his first two seasons, White, the 27th overall pick of the 2005 draft, had 59 total catches for 952 yards and three touchdowns.

He was headed into bust territory, because he didn't take football seriously.

I had heard stories about how White was a fixture in Atlanta's dynamic club scene, not caring that a lot of people viewed him as a washout because he wasn't producing. He drove a school-bus yellow Chrysler with a Falcon painted on the hood and his initials strewn on the trunk. He wanted attention but sought the wrong way to attract it.

Football was a part of his life, not all of it.

In 2007, Bobby Petrino was hired as head coach and for as bad as that situation ended, Petrino and his tough-coaching brother Paul -- the receivers coach -- got White's attention. They were going to throw the ball, and he was going to be The Guy. Atlanta also signed Saints castoff Joe Horn, a consummate pro when it came to preparation, even though his best days were behind him. White followed Horn's lead and became a precise route runner. He was diligent catching passes from the jugs machine after practice. He saw how Horn never eased up in practice and followed suit.

Then he started making plays in games despite the team going down in flames amid the Michael Vick saga and Petrino's alienation of everybody in the area code. White finished with 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns in 2007. His numbers didn't draw much respect, though, because no one else on offense did much, so somebody had to put up stats.

Then came the breakthrough. In 2008, Matt Ryan was drafted. It wasn't Ryan who made White, though. It was more like the other way around. I'll never forget the first day of minicamp when just about every ball Ryan threw to White sailed everywhere but someplace White could catch it. White was livid, questioning what Atlanta just got itself into drafting that guy.

Two weeks later, they were on the same page. White showed Ryan he was trustworthy and Ryan did the same for White. The big change came, though, when an agitated Horn talked his way off the team, leaving White as the one guy on the offense with some tenure. He was forced to lead.

White finished the 2008 season with career highs in catches (88) and yards (1,382) with seven touchdowns and had his first Pro Bowl selection.

"When Joe left, that's when it fell into place," White said. "I loved Joe, and he showed me what extra effort and repetition could do. I knew I had to become a leader, and I did that by stepping up and making big plays. That's when I started putting in the extra effort. Then last season, when we got Tony Gonzalez, he'd catch 60 or 70 passes before practice and 60 or 70 after practice. Then, so did I.

"I'm seeing the ball so well and knowing I'm going to catch it. Matt is getting me the ball and offensive coordinator] [Mike Mularkey is doing things to make sure I touch it."

White still has had to be tamed off the field. Head coach Mike Smith recently repeated a story on Sirius Radio that I'd heard before. Receivers coach Terry Robiskie showed up at White's house unannounced and told him if he wanted to be good, the partying would have to wait until his career was done. Robiskie is someone players listen to and respect. White took heed.

"They've done a good job of staying on me," White said. "These guys do a great job of keeping me motivated. I watch film all the time, and I'm prepared. I love watching film with Terry Robiskie because he's always asking me what I see and what plays I think I can exploit. They listen to me sometimes instead of always telling me. There's trust."

There's also security, a security that White said solidified his commitment to emerge as one of the league's best. "I'm in the top five" receivers, he said.

Before the 2009 season, White began to grumble about not receiving a contract extension. Things never reached a boiling point but a holdout was in order. The Falcons did not want that type of distraction. Under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, their philosophy is to either bounce a player, or take care of him.

They awarded White a six-year, $48 million extension.

"People don't realize how much that means to a player, and that's one of the biggest things that kept me focused on football," White said. "I got that done and all I had to do was play football. There was no arguing or foolishness from either side. They expected me to earn it, and I expected to prove I was worth it. I was a happy guy and when guys are happy, they play hard."

White is so different now. He is a player other guys come to with questions about football and life, a guy whose growth has been fairly radical.

Having lit up the league thus far, White doesn't foresee things slowing down for him, even though he's drawn more attention than ever despite the Falcons relying mostly on running back Michael Turner as their top option. He also foresees the Falcons poised to really separate from the pack.

As for him, White said, "I'm going to make plays because I know I can and because they do too much with me pre-snap for teams to totally clamp down on me. I'm wide, they use me in the slot, they put me in motion. I come out of the backfield. There's no way any team can just put one guy on me and have him follow me all game like if I was lined up wide."

As for the Falcons: "After this bye week, we've got Tampa and Baltimore at home (where Atlanta is all but unbeatable). We feel we should get those two and be 7-2 before we hit the road. The key is we can't have any slip-ups in the game, in practice, off the field. We have to take this seriously."

He has changed so much.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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