Postcard from camp: Falcons
This team is in big trouble if Michael Turner can't stay healthy
Fresh off signing a $50M deal, Dunta Robinson really has an impressive work ethic
Rookie LB Sean Weatherspoon, a 6-2, 245-pound ball of energy, enlivens practice
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Peter King had to say about the Falcons camp in Flowery Branch, Ga. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
This is one of the few totally self-contained training camps in the NFL. If a player so choses, he wouldn't have to get in a vehicle from the time he walked into camp on Wednesday, July 28, until leaving for the first preseason game on Friday, Aug. 13. In fact, he would never have to walk more than a couple hundred yards to anything -- the dining hall inside the facility, meeting rooms inside the facility, the small dorm complexes a hundred yards from the practice fields, or to the autograph lines by the bleachers near the practice field. Might be a little claustrophobic, but it's a great design for a totally self-contained, year-'round complex. I took in two practices -- outside in the humidity in the morning, inside Atlanta's practice bubble during a thunderstorm in the afternoon.
1. Not that No. 3 quarterback John Parker Wilson is competing for the starting job, but I could see the Alabama grad pressing Chris Redman for the backup position sometime soon. Wilson throws a tight spiral and is accurate, from watching him during the morning practice. He threw a perfect 18-yard strike over the middle to wideout Brandyn Harvey that made the crowd go, "Oooooh.''
2. This team's in trouble if Michael Turner can't stay healthy, because the Falcons don't have another power back with some moves like the rock-solid, 244-pound Turner. And offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey wants to be a 45 percent run team (at least), to keep the pressure off Matt Ryan.
3. Might be the end of the line for Brian Finneran, who has fought through so many injuries -- inspirationally -- to still be competing for one of the receiving spots at 34. But the fifth-round pick from Kansas -- 6-foot-3, 220-pound wideout Kerry Meier -- could nudge Finneran out of a job.
Free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson, signed for $50 million of owner Arthur Blank's bankroll this offseason, really practices hard. I stood with GM Thomas Dimitroff during the morning workout, and Robinson didn't take plays off, at one point knifing in front of Roddy White to efficiently break up a pass from Ryan. "The challenging thing about this job,'' Dimitroff said, "is sitting across the table from a man like Mr. Blank and saying, 'This cat is worth $50 million.' That's some pressure. But that's why they hired me. We needed a player like this.'' Robinson replaces the unreliable Chris Houston, shipped to Detroit in April, and should give Atlanta the cover corner it has lacked in coach Mike Smith's two previous seasons.
Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a 6-2, 245-pound ball of energy, enlivens practice -- even when he's getting yelled at. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder blistered him at the morning practice for missing an assignment -- "G------ rookie show out here!'' VanGorder yelled -- but Weatherspoon just ate the critique and went back and played the next play. "I need that,'' Weatherspoon told me. "In our system, for me, it's about intensity in the blitz, and I need to have little reminders sometimes if I'm doing wrong.''
In an ideal world, the Falcons would have four players getting pressure on the quarterback from different spots: Weatherspoon, along with ends John Abraham, Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann. The rookie will definitely have the chance to impact the game to start the season on nickel downs, and maybe more often depending on his adjustment to the game in preseason.
Tony Gonzalez, at 34 looking like he's 27. "I'm an old man,'' Gonzalez said after practice, struggling to stand after sitting on a bleacher outside the locker room for a couple of minutes. Funny -- he doesn't look like one on the field. Gonzalez didn't take plays off (that I saw anyway) in the morning session, and looks fluid and lithe. Something the coaches have been impressed with in his 15 months as a Falcon is his blocking, which has never been his forte. Interesting: Gonzalez ended last year with 999 catches, which I'm told ticked him off as he went into the offseason (because he felt you never know what might happen in the offseason). Wouldn't be surprised if Ryan's first throw of the season Sept. 12 is to Gonzalez.
Lunch entrée: Can't do lunch much better than this one. The Falcons cater their training table from the Turnstile Deli, of Gainesville, Ga., with southern food that's a little heavier than most training tables. But to balance things out, John and Susan Haynes, the proprietors, mix in the requisite fresh fruit and salads and nuts and ... well, the healthy stuff. Today's entrée was chicken pot pie, with sumptuous chunks of all white meat and vegetables that hadn't been cooked too long and turned to mush; steamed broccoli with just a touch of cheddar cheese; and a tossed salad with balsamic vinaigrette. Very good. Sometimes you just need chicken pot pie.
Drink: Dasani water.
1. Harry Douglas, drafted to be the Falcons' slot man in the third round of the 2008 draft, missed last year with a knee injury but looks back to his rookie self. He's got to give Ryan the intermediate target a classic slot man gives a passer; it's a vital part of Mularkey's offense.
2. Harvey Dahl: most underrated offensive lineman in football.
3. I like Blank's approach to the CBA talks. Each place I visit on this tour, I try to take the temperature on what the owners or significant club voices think about the owners-players negotiations, and I've heard some dire stuff. Blank has been in his share of negotiations in the business, knows it's often darkest before the dawn, and thinks the football business is too lucrative for both sides for there to be a work stoppage, or at least for there to be much of a work stoppage.
4. Two best practice-field complexes (including condition of the grass) I've seen on my first seven camp visits: Atlanta and Carolina. I'm convinced you could putt on the Falcons' practice field better than on most municipal golf courses.
5. The more I watch the game, the more I think how valuable good assistant coaches like Atlanta receivers coach Terry Robiskie are. It's hard at a diva position to make really good athletes and players better, but Robiskie has done it everywhere he's coached. He's doing it here with White, who is practicing this year harder than he did before he got paid big money last year. That's, in part, the Robiskie influence.