It was an unseasonably cool day at the end of May when one of the Falcons first OTA practices ended. There was a light drizzle and cold breeze in the air as players grabbed their helmets and made for the locker room. Not Isaiah Oliver, though. He walked to the fair field only to put his helmet on the ground and begin jogging.
Sideline to sideline he went across the 40-yard line, some times stopping and starting, sometimes cutting left to right. From afar it looked like he was just enjoying the feel of the grass beneath his cleats. And that would make sense as he looked down at his knee, a brace snug against it protecting an ACL injury that kept him off the grass for the majority of the 2021 season.
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Oliver only played in four games last season because of said injury. Those four games saw Oliver play with a confidence and comfortability that many felt they hadn't yet seen from him as a Falcon. One could argue that was because he played out of position throughout his first couple years in the league, prior to Raheem Morris moving him inside to nickel in 2020 before Dean Pees decided to keep him there full time in 2021.
Those four games showed a player who may have finally found his niche in a scheme that fit him better than all the others. Oliver thrived, until that knee injury took him out for the rest of the season. He had surgery right away, but it was the first major injury Oliver had ever had to work through.
Seven months post-operation, Oliver said those early months were long, but feeling the grass again changed things.
"It was a lot to kind of handle at first, but just getting into the rehab and getting going and getting back on the field I feel like helped me the most," Oliver told AtlantaFalcons.com. "You can almost see the finish line. Whereas those first couple of months it just seems like it's too much all at once, and it's just so far away. Now, I feel like I'm in a much better spot, both physically and mentally."
Oliver said he's not at 100 percent yet, he said he feels about 70 percent, or "somewhere in the 70s," to be more specific. He still has restrictions that keep him from going full speed, but he's right where he needs to be at this point in the offseason.
For Oliver, he said the easy part of the recovery is getting back on the field. The hard part is connecting your mind and your post-injury body so you can play at the speed you once were. It's about getting back to the point where you're not thinking anymore. It's about muscle memory taking over again, and you - the player - trusting your body to handle it.
"I feel like I can do pretty much everything," he said. "It's just about doing it naturally."
The Falcons brought Oliver back on a one-year deal this offseason. It's a move that made sense for the organization, as the Falcons are still working out of a salary cap bind, and can only offer veterans one-year deals. Because the nickel position is so crucial to Dean Pees' defensive scheme it made complete sense why the Falcons would want to bring back a player who had experience in it. More so, a player who seemed to work well in it, too, even with a relatively small sample size.
Talking to Pees himself, the defensive coordinator said the Falcons missed having a true nickel after Oliver was injured. Pees liked Oliver from the start, saying early on he reminded him of some of his former nickels at Tennessee and Baltimore. Pees didn't have to fit the scheme to Oliver. He already fit it. And even in the last month of the season, Oliver's presence was missed.
"We had a revolving door (at nickel)," Pees said.
He went onto to say re-signing Oliver was an important move for this defense because of the weight this position holds in the scheme itself. The nickel in Pees' defense has a significant role. It dictates alignments. It dictates coverages, and blitzing options. It commands a lot of attention.
Pees was right when he called the rotation at nickel post-Oliver's injury a revolving door, too. Richie Grant, Darren Hall, Avery Williams and even Eric Harris took a shot at nickel in the 13 weeks following Oliver's injury. No one really worked the way Pees thought Oliver did, though.
"If Isaiah was here," Pees said at the end of December, "he'd still be in the slot."
Deep into his recovery and rehab, Oliver saw the comment.
"Just to know that and to kind of understand that I was missed out there was good to hear. It sucks that it had to come the way that it did," Oliver said. "I feel like it helped a lot of the other guys on the team, though, being able to get that experience, being able to get that play time going into this year. Guys like Darren Hall, Richie Grant. I feel like they are much better off for it."
However, that comment from Pees was foreshadowing Oliver's return to the Falcons in 2022.
"It's not like we're re-learning and starting over with him," Pees said about wanting Oliver back. "He got to have all the OTAs (last year). He got to have all of training camp. It's good having a guy at that position who's got a little bit of experience."
It's also good when the player in question feels as though he fits the scheme and the scheme fits him. That's something Oliver said ultimately convinced him to sign a one-year deal with Atlanta. As much as Pees likes Oliver's fit within his scheme, Oliver feels the same.
"I just felt like it was the best spot for me, personally," Oliver said. "Not only do I love the guys, the coaches and everything, but this defense suited my abilities the best. To be on a one-year deal, there's definitely no where else I'd rather be than here, for that reason, for sure. I feel like it gives me the best opportunity to play my best football."
And that's exactly what Oliver was doing pre-injury: playing his best football.
Now, it's something he wants to prove wasn't a four-game thing, that it's who he is as a player in this league. He wants to prove that to himself as much as anyone.
"It's not necessarily hard to get back on the field and play football, but to get back on the field and play football at the level at before you got hurt, and/or better, that's the hard part," Oliver said. "I could probably get on the field and play football right now, but it's about getting back to where I was. I just want to be able to prove it to myself that by the grace of God this injury didn't hinder me in any way other than the fact that I had to miss the last 13 games, but that's it."
Oliver will get the chance to prove just that in the season ahead.
Take a look at cornerback A.J. Terrell sporting the classic red helmet originally worn by the Atlanta Falcons in 1966.