Monday March 3rd, 2008

Not much has gone to plan for the Atlanta Falcons since the final month of the 2006 season or so, but you can't fault their execution in the pursuit and acquisition of free-agent running back Michael Turner this weekend.

The Falcons long ago identified Turner as their No. 1 priority in free agency, and when the NFL's annual personnel shopping season opened Friday, Atlanta sprung into action. This time, the Falcons had much better luck than when they went after their top candidates in their recent general manager and head coaching searches.

In what might approach the league record for the longest free-agent visit ever, Turner hit town on Friday, took in a Georgia Force Arena Football League game on Saturday, and was wined and dined at one of Atlanta's best restaurants Saturday night by Falcons owner Arthur Blank and a coterie of team officials. Finally on Sunday, there was a deal to report: six years for a salary in the range of $35 million, with a hefty $15 million guaranteed.

This time, the Falcons didn't get turned down, the way Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, Jason Garrett and Jim Caldwell had done them in December and January. This time, Atlanta didn't have to settle for its second choice.

According to a Falcons source I spoke with Sunday afternoon, Blank put the full-court press on Turner, taking him to a five-star restaurant for a Saturday night dinner that was attended by new general manager Thomas Dimitroff, new head coach Mike Smith, new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and quite possibly team president Rich McKay. Their goal was clear: Turner was not to get out of town without a deal. Blank could not abide by any more near-misses.

Turner was one of the bigger prizes in this year's rather shallow pool of free agents, and while almost $6 million a year is an astounding price to pay for a career backup, sometimes the crying need to generate a bit of good news, and a little hope among your fan base really does create a special set of circumstances. Sometimes there is a good enough reason to over-spend, especially if the player has as much talent and potential as Turner.

If ever there was a team in need of a little hope these days, it's these Falcons, who have seen a drought of near Biblical proportions when it comes to news that their fans can use. In a January phone conversation I had with Blank, I mentioned how eager he must have been to turn the calendar page on 2007 and get the new year started.

"Whatever happens in 2008, it can't possibly be worse,'' Blank said. "There's no way it ever could."

Turner's signing, and the Falcons last week winning the coin flip with Oakland for the No. 3 spot in the draft, might portend that Atlanta's horrible run of luck (and in some cases, short-sighted decision making) has bottomed out. I'm high on the guy who served as LaDainian Tomlinson's understudy in San Diego, and believe he'll thrive in the power-style running game that Mularkey plans to build around him in Atlanta.

Turner's speed and explosiveness should be a great fit for the fast track of the Georgia Dome, and due to his four years of limited activity behind L.T., the Falcons are getting a 26-year-old with much less wear and tear on him than your average fifth-year NFL running back. With Turner, Atlanta might just have a shot of getting all six of his contract's years out of him, at what in time could wind up being a relative bargain salary.

Turner and speed-back Jerious Norwood have a chance to form a potent one-two punch in Atlanta's backfield, but in all likelihood Warrick Dunn's days as a Falcon have effectively come to an end. His departure by release or trade is probably just a matter of time. That'll mean that in the span of less than a year, Atlanta will have lost quarterback Michael Vick, tight end Alge Crumpler, and Dunn, its three most accomplished offensive weapons. Shocking in one sense, but not in light of what this franchise has endured in the past 10 months.

No one should get carried away and forget that the Falcons still need to solve their quarterback problems in order for the Turner signing to be anything other than a band-aid applied to their offense. But if passing help arrives via the draft, either at the No. 3 pick or in the second or third round, Atlanta fans will at least begin to see the outline of a path back to respectability.

Who knows exactly what move will be the one that sparks a Falcons turnaround? But landing Turner -- their No. 1 objective in free agency -- means that Atlanta didn't have to settle for its second choice this time.

• OK, raise your hand if you've been saying all along that Bears receiver Bernard Berrian would get a bigger free-agent deal with more guaranteed money than Pro Bowl outside linebacker Lance Briggs?

What in the name of Doug Buffone is going on here? Berrian, a decent but far from dominating receiver, got $42 million over six years, with $16 million guaranteed from the Vikings on Saturday. Briggs, reputed to be one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL, quietly re-signed in Chicago -- the team he had already said goodbye to -- for $36 million over six years, with $13 million guaranteed.

Either Briggs' reputation within the league isn't as glowing as he was led to believe -- and he did sound a lot like a "me'' guy the past two years -- or there apparently weren't many teams that had the need or the desire to throw a ton of money at their linebacker depth chart this year. As for the Vikings' deal with Berrian, that was just their desperation for a starting receiver, and their desire to weaken a division rival in the process.

• The most ridiculous storyline I heard all weekend was the idea that Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper talked Saturday night about reuniting somewhere now that they're both free agents, in order to finish the business of winning a championship together that they started in Minnesota in 1999.


Who exactly is Culpepper going to be a candidate to start for in 2008? Once he signs with someone, Culpepper is going to be playing for his fourth different team in four years: Minnesota in 2005, Miami in 2006, Oakland in 2007, and who knows where in 2008?

Whatever team that might need him in their mix at quarterback probably isn't going to wind up being one of the favorites to challenge for the Super Bowl next season. And even if you believe that Moss is open to leaving New England -- and I absolutely don't -- it's a huge stretch to see him joining some club that isn't deemed one of the top five more serious Super Bowl contenders in the league.

Talk about your scenario that doesn't pass the sniff test.

• Here's a bit more on Moss: To use one of Jerry Jones' pet phrases, "I really don't believe'' Dallas is going to make a move on the most high-profile free agent in the NFL. The mind boggles at the thought of Moss and Terrell Owens sharing the same air at Valley Ranch, and from all indications, the Cowboys aren't interested in adding another No. 81.

Who does that leave? One team that might have been a suitor can already be crossed off the list: Jacksonville. The Jaguars signed a different ex-Raider, giving $5 million a year for six years to Jerry Porter. They couldn't fork over that and still pay Moss.

Philly won't do it because the memories of the T.O. fiasco are too fresh. If there's a team that might swing it, and that Moss would play for, it may well be the Packers. But only if Brett Favre is still wearing a Green Bay jersey in 2008.

• Quarterbacks don't even get to free agency much any more, and when they do, they're certainly not jumping teams much. Cleveland re-signed Derek Anderson, Washington re-signed Todd Collins and San Diego re-signed Billy Volek -- wise moves, all of them.

• I'm not saying Jason Taylor is definitely a Dolphin again this season, and I'm not saying he isn't. All I'm saying is that if you tend to take Parcells at his absolute word every time he opens his mouth, you probably have the shortest short-term memory of anyone I know.

• Giants fans have a right to be unhappy about losing safety Gabril Wilson, who signed with Oakland in the Raiders' near-annual move to raid a Super Bowl-winning roster. But New York rooters shouldn't be concerned much at all about seeing starting linebackers Kawika Mitchell (Buffalo) and Reggie Torbor (Miami) bolt. A healthy Mathias Kiwanuka and a developing Gerris Wilkinson should plug those holes nicely.

• One of the underrated moves this weekend was New Orleans signing ex-Patriots cornerback Randall Gay. Put me down for the following prediction: The Saints will get more out of Gay than they got out of last year's free-agent cornerback acquisition, Jason David of Indianapolis. In fact, Gay might allow the Saints to play David in more of the nickel role that he's better suited to.

• I'm surprised the Patriots didn't make more of an effort to keep receiver Donte' Stallworth, but that said, I think it's pretty risky for the Browns to give him $10 million guaranteed as part of a seven-year, $35 million contract. And if you're keeping score, that makes four teams in four years for Stallworth too: New Orleans in 2005, Philadelphia in 2006, New England in 2007 and Cleveland in 2008. Somebody must know something if that many teams are OK with the idea of saying goodbye to him.

• I have great respect for Bills head coach Dick Jauron, so there's a part of me that believes Buffalo must have done its homework on Marcus Stroud and knows that he's nowhere near the end of the line. But Jacksonville doesn't have a track record of letting go of too many players who aren't at least approaching the wall. Maybe Stroud will be the exception, but the Donovin Darius example sticks in my mind.

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