FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Falcons running back Michael Turner thinks back to last offseason and shakes his head. Then he laughs. It's not that kind of down-in-the-belly guffaw that comes from remembering something funny. It's the nervous, uncomfortable chuckle that rises when confronted with an embarrassing moment from your past.
"If you go back and look at some pictures of me from last year at this time, I probably looked big -- a lot bigger than normal," Turner says sheepishly while kicking back after a recent organized team activity. "I was heavy, too heavy. It was hard for me to overcome."
Turner didn't need the photos to know he was well past the 250 pounds that appeared next to his name on the roster. He knew things had changed when he struggled to pull his practice jersey over his midsection. It wasn't as bad as a woman falling on her back and wiggling her way into a pair of jeans that are two sizes too small, but it was close.
The extra weight wasn't the primary reason Turner ran for only 871 yards last season -- a high ankle sprain was the leading culprit. It sidelined him for five games and parts of two others. Still Turner believes the added weight didn't help him, which is why he reported for offseason workouts this year at a legitimate 250. Now the Falcons are hoping he turns back the clock to 2008, when after being signed as a free agent from San Diego he finished No. 2 in the league with 1,699 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in his first season as a fulltime starter.
"I feel great," Turner says after downing a bottle of Gatorade. "I'm out there running around and feel like I can run all day. I'm definitely out to prove that I'm not a a one-year wonder. I don't want to be one of those guys that people say, 'Oh, yeah. He had one good year, but what happened to him after that?' I want to keep putting back-to-back seasons together."
Turner's carries were limited his first four seasons, when he was a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson. He did not have more than 80 carries in any season. But the Falcons steadily fed the football to their bruising halfback. He had 376 carries in 2008 -- 148 more than he had for his career with the Chargers -- and played a key role in Atlanta reaching the playoffs.
Turner showed no wear and tear during the season, but he felt it after a playoff loss to Arizona. "My body was tired and wanted rest," he says. "It needed to recuperate. I didn't want to just kill it year in and year out; I wanted to let it recover before going back and working out. At the same time, if I'm going to do that I have to watch what I eat. I have to cut out all the greasy foods. I didn't do that."
This year Turner has been extremely conscious of his diet, planning it out for weeks at a time. He also has been a regular at the training facility, even when nothing is scheduled. He even made plans to continue his workouts after OTAs conclude.
Coach Mike Smith believes Turner might be in the best shape of his Falcons career. The seventh-year pro basically has not had any time off, because the ankle injury that cut short his 2009 season required him to come in for rehab early in the offseason.
"Michael has been working extremely hard," Smith says. "He is the type of guy that has a lot of pride about him, and he wants to [perform] this season like he had in Year 1 with us. But, you know, I probably made a mistake with him last year. Michael wanted to play and come back in the worst way against the Bucs [after sitting out a week with the high ankle sprain]; and he came back and made it through the first quarter but got injured again. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have put him out there. He was like the competitor that you want all of your players to be; he was in my ear saying, 'I'm ready. I want to get back out there.' You love that, but maybe sometimes you have to step back. That was a good learning experience for me as a head coach."
Smith also realized that he doesn't want to run his workhorse into the ground. The third-year coach won't divulge details, but he says there will be "parameters" on how often Turner carries the ball this season. The Falcons won't go into a game saying he'll be restricted, but they do want to be more conscious of the physical pounding Turner takes. The last thing anyone wants is for him to need an extra long recovery period in the offseason. There are photos to remind the Falcons of how that worked out last time, even if Turner doesn't want to look at them.