To the players in the Falcons locker room, Todd McClure is more than just a veteran. Entering his 14th season in the NFL, he's seen and done just about everything. He's seen a decade of futility from the Falcons, some bright moments in the early 2000's and now a run that is the best in franchise history.
This past offseason saw McClure briefly hit the fre-agent market. His presence there was more about deciding whether to return for another round of anchoring the middle of the Falcons' offensive line than shopping his talent to other teams around the league. He decided to return to the game he's played his entire life and once OTAs began a few weeks ago, he quickly realized why he made that particular decision.
"I'm definitely glad to be back," McClure said last week. "You get back and you realize you miss hanging out in the locker room with the guys and I'm still having fun out on the football field. I'm getting paid to play a child's game and I'm loving every minute of it."
The owner of the franchise's record for most consecutive games started (148) resumed his position once practices began as the team's starting center. Once again this year, his employer spent a draft pick on a player that could eventually take his job. In 2010, the Falcons spent a fourth-round pick on center Joe Hawley. McClure kept his job that season as Hawley learned the ropes.
This year it was Peter Konz, the team's top pick, a second-round guard/center from Wisconsin. While early indications are that Konz will compete more to be the team's right guard, it shouldn't be overlooked that he was regarded as the nation's top center last season. An eventual move to center isn't out of the question for Konz.
At some point, assuming both remain with the Falcons, that center job will be a battle between Hawley and Konz. In the meantime, McClure is still around to do what he can to lay claim to the job. Having new guys join his position group and potentially threaten his starting role isn't anything new to McClure. Fourteen years is a long time and like so many other things, he's seen it all before.
"Art Shell told me when I first got into the league, as soon as you sign that paper, they're trying to find somebody to replace you," McClure said. "It's just the reality of the NFL. You keep going out and producing on the field, the rest will take care of itself."
The epitome of a leader, McClure has been named team captain during and after the season numerous times in his career. Evidence for this honor is found in his approach to not only helping Atlanta win on game day, but all the little things he does throughout the week. Instead of giving the cold shoulder to the young players brought in to compete for his job, he puts his arm around them and helps make their transition into a grown man's league a little easier.
"I've dealt with it pretty much my whole career, younger guys coming in," McClure said. "I've always said I've tried to teach as much as I can, pay it forward. I've told those guys when they come in if they have any questions, don't hesitate to ask because we're making our team better. If I can teach those guys a little thing that can help this team win games, that's what we're here for."
Last season, McClure's streak of consecutive games started ended when an injury kept him out of the season opener. Hawley got the start to begin the season, but two weeks later McClure was back under center. His return coincided with a gradual steadying of an offensive line that started the season more than a little shaky.
McClure said the criticism of the offensive line is just another thing he's seen during his years in the NFL. When things are good, the offensive line is a bunch of big guys whose names anyone hardly knows. When things are going bad and the quarterback is taking more hits than is comfortable to watch, a lot of heat is placed on them.
"You take it in stride," McClure said about dealing with the critics.
It's that kind of attitude that brought McClure back to the Falcons for another season. It's the same attitude that he's using to help do his part to make sure everyone forgets his name and the names of the two players to his right and left on the offensive line this year. If no one knows their names, things will be going pretty well.
But it's safe to assume McClure's offensive line teammates and the rest of the Falcons will never forget his name and everything he's done to make sure a winning tradition lasts in Atlanta.