FLOWERY BRANCH. GA. - It's been hot in Georgia, but especially so at the Atlanta Falcons' training camp, where competition exists all over the field and on both sides of the ball.
Here are five observations of a team hoping for a turnaround.
1. Can Turner carry the load?
Running back Michael Turner has what he's craved for the past four years. Now he must prove this summer that he can handle the pressure he's created for himself.
Trapped behind LaDainian Tomlinson with the San Diego Chargers, Turner averaged 5.5 yards per carry as an explosive change-of-pace alternative. Considering Turner carried the ball only 228 times for 1,257 yards during those years, the question he has to answer in Atlanta is whether his body and mind can hold up when the Falcons showcase him as their featured back. Turner has looked solid early on at camp but even he concedes more must be revealed, and soon.
"I still got something to prove," Turner said. "I gotta show I can carry the load. In San Diego, you knew you had that roof over your head. I had no problem with my role but I understood the situation. Here I have a lot of expectations for myself.
"It's been a long offseason. I'm even excited about preseason games. I can't wait until Week 1 (of the regular season). It's a different feeling for me this year. This has been building up in me for four years. I know I better get ready because they're gonna feed me the ball."
The Falcons have a clone of Turner in backup Jerious Norwood, who scored three touchdowns last season, all 67 yards or longer. Turner's goal, however, is to do for Norwood what Tomlinson did for him in San Diego -- keep him well rested.
2. When will the face of the franchise appear?
Matt Ryan couldn't be more different than the man he's being paid $72 million to replace, but one question remains -- how soon can he win games?
As Bill Parcells used to put it, "Quarterbacks are judged by their jewelry." They are judged in the end by one thing -- did they win games and did those games lead to championships? At the moment, Ryan can afford a lot of jewelry but will he win any?
Ryan, the third overall pick in April's draft, can't run like Michael Vick but he can throw more accurately and he certainly doesn't carry the baggage that followed Vick to a Federal prison and all but destroyed the team. But whether Ryan can win games the way Vick did remains to be seen.
In the early weeks of training camp, Ryan has been part of a four-way fight to become the Falcons' starting quarterback. While veteran Chris Redman got the nod to start the preseason opener, Ryan, D.J. Shockey and former first-round pick Joey Harrington are still part of the mix.
New coach Mike Smith has yet to declare a leader in the competition. In fact, he said last week each of the four quarterbacks will start one preseason game. It is expected Ryan will start the second, which will be the home opener at the Georgia Dome. If he does, it will be a symbolic moment fraught with hope for the future that the cerebral Ryan represents for Falcons fans and to Smith.
"People seem to like to talk about my preparation but first and foremost you need a passer at quarterback," Ryan said during a break between two-a-days. "You have to be able to deliver the ball and you have to be able to decipher where to go with it, too. I don't lack for confidence in my physical skills. People just don't seem to get to them when they talk about me."
The Falcons bypassed highly rated defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey to take Ryan despite the fact many NFL scouts felt Dorsey was the best pure football player in the draft. General manager Thomas Dimitroff wouldn't quarrel with that assessment of Dorsey, but felt strongly that Ryan was the pick that would pay the highest dividends in Atlanta.
Ryan has already begun to replace Vick elsewhere, signing his first local endorsement deal as the face of AirTran Airways. Billboards are around town, the same ones that once had Vick's picture on them. So Ryan has already made AirTran forget Vick. How long until the Falcons do the same?
"It was widely written we were going to take Dorsey," Dimitroff said. "We believed Matt Ryan's leadership ability, intelligence, toughness and skills on the field, plus the value of the quarterback position made Matt a clear-cut choice. We studied every game he played in college.
"What would he bring to this team? Some of the traits he has were the ones we'd seen in other successful (NFL) quarterbacks. In time, we believe he can lead the whole team."
Ryan understands the urgency to start a new chapter in Falcons' history and make Atlanta forget a 4-12 campaign in 2007.
"I was pumped to come here," Ryan insists. "Everybody's on the same page. We're moving in the same direction.
"I know some people say they should take their time with me. Others want me to play right away. I can understand both sides. There's no right or wrong way to handle a young quarterback. If there were they'd all do it. Troy Aikman, Drew Bledsoe and Peyton (Manning) took their lumps playing early but look what they accomplished. Without a doubt, I want to play. I'll understand if I don't but I'm working to make the decision easy for them."
3. Is the Patriots' Way now the Falcons' Way?
If you own a troubled NFL franchise, where better to look for someone to rebuild it than within the New England Patriots organization?
The Patriots have won three Super Bowls since 2001, so it should come as no surprise this offseason that owner Arthur Blank handed the task of rebuilding the Falcons to Dimitroff, the Patriots' former college scouting director. The assumption was that Dimitroff would simply repeat everything he saw in New England. Will he simply try to follow the blueprint established by his bosses there, Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, or does he have a twist or two of his own?
"I've always thought from the very beginning of being around the success of the New England Patriots' program that if I ever took over a team, I'd bring all the positive aspects of that organization and jettison what we don't feel is necessary," Dimitroff said.
"Coach (Mike) Smith had a lot of success himself in Baltimore and Jacksonville and we have a strong plan of how to do this. We've mulled it over many times. Mr. Blank, upon my arrival in Atlanta, made clear to me this is a different market than New England. It's important we be accessible and respectful to the media and marketing guys. I'm fine with that. Coach Smith is fine with that. We know where the line is drawn and what we want to do and how we're going to do it."
One way has been to jettison more than half of the roster and most of the previous coaching staff and then reassign former GM Rich McKay, who is now working only on the business side of the franchise.
Dimitroff then not only rejected the advice of many who urged him to draft Dorsey instead of Ryan, the GM made a similarly bold move by trading back into the first round to take USC tackle Sam Baker after a run on offensive linemen convinced him he could wait no longer in search of a new left tackle.
Those moves, coupled with the unloading of seven of their best veteran players, including four-time Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler, former Pro Bowl running back Warrick Dunn, left tackle Wayne Gandy and DeAngelo Hall, who was traded to Oakland, allowed Dimitroff to immediately put his stamp on a revamped Falcon team that will have versatile offensive linemen, bigger defensive linemen, a power running game and a hard-nosed attitude.
"We have 188 years of NFL coaching experience on our staff," Dimitroff said. "We have tough, hard-nosed coaches on the offensive and defensive line, which I felt was important. We know this is going to take some time but we know how we want to play."
How Dimitroff wants to play is with abundant enthusiasm, which was sadly missing last season. Oddly, what he doesn't feel is important is a timetable based on wins.
"My goal is to change the culture here. I want passionate people with the resilience to deal with the rebuilding process. I've never looked at this like in Year 2 we have to win X amount of games. It's more about the rebirth of an organization. I believe in playing passionate football. If we do that the wins will come. That's what I believe."
4. What's my line?
Savior is an unusual role for an offensive line coach but such is the case for Paul Boudreau, who was brought in from St. Louis this offseason to alter the face and the approach of a unit that struggled mightily last season.
The Falcons led the NFL in rushing in 2005 and 2006 but tumbled to 26th a year ago. Smith, a defensive-oriented coach, knew Boudreau from their days as assistants in Jacksonville and brought him in to reestablish a power-running game he feels is vital to changing the attitude of his team and the production of their offense.
Last year, injuries and the highly suspect offensive schemes of former coach Bobby Petrino conspired against the offensive line's production. Rather than totally rebuild a line that used four different players at left tackle, Smith handed Boudreau a first-round draft choice to play the position and six returning veterans to tutor and rebuild, psychologically as well as schematically.
"I've heard that savior stuff," Boudreau snorted. "I told them I swim in water not walk on it. What will improve us is hard work and commitment.
"Whatever happened last year we had nothing to do with. I've told these guys everyone's got a clean slate. Now I got to get them drinking the Kool-Aid. Team is first. My whole thing is about team. I told them what I expect are five guys fighting their (rears) off on every play.
"We've got a cooling tent at the end of the practice field. I tell them that's the (complaining) tent. In there they can complain about me and how we do things but when they walk out on the field the (complaining) is over. It's time to work together."
Boudreau claims that from what he's seen early in training camp, he may have in Atlanta what any coaching savior needs most -- players with a desire to get better and the talent to do it.
"If we stay healthy, we can do some good things on offense,'' Boudreau promised. "I like my guys. They've got big hearts. This could be a fun deal."
One key may be the play of versatile Alex Stepanovich, the former Bengals starting center. Todd McClure has started 96 consecutive games at that position but he's been out of camp with lower back problems. Although McClure is expected to return, Stepanovich is being groomed at both center and guard.
"Right now, I'm just trying to learn all three spots,'' Stepanovich said. "I've played a lot in this league. You've got to be ready."
Stepanovich is the kind of versatile player Boudreau is trying to develop, one who can step into several spots in a line that lacked depth when he arrived.
"We try to have as few one-position players as possible," Smith said.
Competition also exists at right guard where Boudreau has installed Harvey Dahl ahead of former starter Kynan Forney for the moment. If Boudreau's line can stay healthy and follow his guidance, improvements in Atlanta could come faster than predicted.
5. Anybody know who's in the middle?
Even though the Falcons have one familiar face on the interior of the defensive line, the group may need a formal introduction.
When the Falcons re-signed massive defensive tackle Grady Jackson on July 29, it returned to Atlanta a player whose mid-season dismissal a year ago by Petrino caused a mutiny from which neither he nor the defensive front recovered.
Atlanta was already hurting in the middle of its front four but letting Jackson go turned a defense ranked 22nd against the run in the first half of the season into the 29th ranked run defense in the second half. Lacking in size at both defensive tackle positions, Atlanta brought back the 362-pound Jackson, who ended up playing the rest of the 2007 season for Smith and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton in Jacksonville. Montavious Stanley, 6-foot-2, 302 pounds, is getting a chance next to Jackson in an attempt to add size in the middle.
A second knee injury to Trey Lewis, who may be lost for the season, was a setback for the interior defensive line. However things end up, two new starters will replace Rod Coleman, who was released in the offseason, and former starter Jonathan Babineaux, who is currently third on the depth chart. Barring injury, the road-grader sized Jackson will start, if for no other reason than that he occupies a ton of space.
There will be a new face at middle linebacker as well, although at this stage of camp that position is unsettled. Rookie Curtis Lofton has yet to assert himself enough to move into the starting lineup. The first preseason game featured former undrafted free agent Tony Taylor in the middle.
Taylor was a special teams performer a year ago who has never started an NFL game. The hope is Lofton, a second-round selection out of Oklahoma, will grab the position by the end of training camp. One of them must emerge regardless of how they're playing because Smith does not want to shift weakside linebacker Keith Brooking back to the middle, a position he played uncomfortably and without distinction last season. In his 11th NFL season, Brooking wants to return to his more natural position, one better suited for his 6-foot-2, 241-pound frame and playing style; Smith seems ready to accommodate him.