As I began researching and writing Friday's game preview story, the thought started to enter my mind as to what might constitute reasonable expectations, statistically speaking, for what Michael Turner might be able to achieve this season now that we are three games in.
Turner rushed for 1,699 yards -- second best in the NFL in '08 to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson -- and ran for 17 touchdowns. That's an amazing season and a credit to the entire offense: the offensive line, fullback Ovie Mughelli and the tight ends for blocking and to quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins and others for making the passing game enough of a threat to keep defenses from stacking the box against Turner.
Let's take a look at what Turner did last season on a game-by-game basis through three weeks. In the opener, he rushed for 220 yards against Detroit, which became the first NFL team to lose all of its games since the league expanded to a 16-game schedule. Against Tampa Bay in Week 2, he totaled 42 yards in a loss and then he broke triple digits again in Week 3 with 104 yards against Kansas City, which finished 30th in the NFL last season in rushing defense. In fact, the Falcons ended up playing six of the NFL's seven worst rushing defenses last season and 13 of their 17 games came against teams that ranked No. 16 or lower in that category.
So through the first three weeks last season, Turner totaled 366 yards. This year Turner gained 65 yards against Miami, 105 against Carolina and 56 at New England for a total of 226.
With the Falcons' making the playoffs last season and then having the NFC South match up with the NFC East and AFC East, the Birds were handed a much more difficult 2009 schedule. Entering the season, the Falcons had the fourth-hardest schedule in the league based on opponents' 2008 winning percentage. This week Forbes.com, updating the most difficult schedules in the NFL to include the first few weeks' results, ranked the Falcons' schedule as the sixth toughest. (Incidentally, divisional foes Carolina and Tampa Bay were tied for having the most difficult.)
And this week the Falcons have to contend with an opponent that was expected before the season to be among its easier ones, but the 49ers come in 3-1 and with the league's No. 4 rush defense. Other teams on the schedule that appear to be vastly improved from last season are New Orleans (4-0) and the New York Jets (3-1).
As Tony Gonzalez often says, he doesn't care how many passes he catches or touchdowns he scores, as long as the team wins. Against a schedule this tough, is it possible for Turner to achieve what he did last season or to better it? The bottom line is that with the addition of Gonzalez, the offense should be extremely potent and Turner might not have to rush for nearly 1,700 yards to get the Falcons in the playoffs. Ultimately, the Falcons will be judged by how many games they win and not by how many yards Turner runs for.