Last week, I returned to the practice field. It felt great.
I’m now more than a month removed from sustaining a very minor setback to my hamstring. When that occurred, I consulted with the training staff, and we decided that since we had time before the season opener against the Saints, we should take our time and get the injury rectified.
They really trusted me, and my response was to be very transparent and honest with them about how I was feeling. Taking the time we did allowed us to approach rehab the right way. We weren’t under pressure to rush me back onto the field or avoid missing actual games. I was able to put in a lot of hard work in rehab, and I have much more confidence in the leg now.
Life is just full of trials and tribulations. Through those trials, you have to see the positive side of things.
A DIFFERENT ATTITUDE
Last year, when I injured my other hamstring, I’ll admit that it was hard to see things that way. I didn’t take the positive approach.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to come back quickly, and prove to a new fan base and organization that I was still the successful running back I’ve always been. No one ever told me I had to do that. I added a lot of unnecessary stress to the situation, which slows down healing, and does a lot of other things in your life, too.
This year, I opted not to take that approach. I decided to be positive. I took the injury as a blessing in disguise that allowed me to do things like learn the intricacies of our offense. I take great pride in knowing the blocking scheme, what everyone is doing on the field, where the point of attack is, why the coach will call a certain play and what he’s trying to get done. It was something I’ve done a lot of in the past, but was difficult to do last year because I was joining a new team and organization, and learning a new offense.
Since I had a month to study, I took things a step further than I ever had before. I tried to look at the game as if I was a quarterback or a coordinator, which really challenged me to know where each guy was supposed to line up, what his job was and what he was supposed to do.
I intend to put all of that knowledge to good use in the season ahead.
NEW MEANS OF IMPROVEMENT
During my time off the field, I also focused on becoming a better leader and being more vocal. I studied the team, and looked for where I fit in. Because we have such true veteran presences on our team, last year I didn’t know quite where I fit. But by looking at things with a positive outlook, I was able to decide where I fit, and what role I needed to play.
Although I wasn’t on the field until the end of August, I was very involved in film study, practice and games. I made it my mission to help some of the younger backs, and doing so really helped me get a lot of mental reps. As I watched each game, I was giving them tidbits or tips to help them run and see things the way I see them. I really made sure that I stayed involved, and I’ve noticed it translating for me almost immediately in my return to the field.
I’m making decisions more quickly than I was before.
I think knowing those intricacies is going to make a big difference for me when the season does get underway. It’s going to help me put guys in position to do their jobs even easier. As a running back, we always pride ourselves on being the adjuster. We have to make things right.
Of course, a football game never goes perfectly. We will make mistakes as running backs. My teammates will make mistakes, too. But if I know their job and what they’re supposed to do, I can help make their job a little easier by setting up runs, or attacking defenders when they come out on a blitz. I know now that if Matt gets a certain look, he’ll be trying to get the ball out of his hand and where he might be going with it. When I was able to really understand the intricacies of our offense, it actually made the days go by faster. It made the rehab seem to go by with a purpose. I wanted to get out there and test the things that I had been teaching myself.
Last year was a rough year for me individually and for the team. So of course, I want to get back to being the running back that I’ve been over my career. That means providing exciting play, playing with authority, punishing the defense on the end of my runs and being the tempo setter for this Atlanta Falcons team.
I can tell you now that I’m more excited for the season than I was even before the injury. I’m more excited to be involved with my teammates and continue to be the leader that I know I am. I’m ready to go out there, and help us have a great season.
A COMPLETE OFFENSE
Each and every year, the NFL provides every team the opportunity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. With that in mind, I think the Atlanta Falcons are primed and ready to make our case on why we can be in the postseason, and strive toward that goal.
I like what I see from this team on both sides of the ball.
Our offense can put a wide range of defenses under stress in an even wider variety of ways. Matt Ryan is a great leader for this team, and our X and Z receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White, are two of the best in the game. We have guys that are very good in the slot in Harry Douglas and Devin Hester. All those things make our passing game dangerous.
My favorite thing about our backfield is the amount of depth that we have. I was looking around our running back room the other day, and I really couldn’t remember being on any team that had so much depth and such a variety of running styles out of the backfield. Every one of the players in that room is a viable option. Each guy worked hard in training camp, and when they got opportunities, they took advantage of them. I was very proud of the running backs and the fullbacks as we broke camp.
I get asked about Devonta Freeman a lot, and I must say, I’m just flat out impressed with not only the football player that Devonta is, but the person he is, and the humility that he shows off the field. Devonta has a good spirit. He is a very humble, young man and his dream is to be successful in the National Football League. That’s the way he approaches his day-to-day business. Like anything, there will be learning curves that he will have to adjust to. But he has not only myself, but other veteran running backs in the room that can help him out.
We have a very positive group, and we all want to see each other succeed. We have a group that understands the greater goal, and that is to be a winning football team that hopefully will end up being Super Bowl champions. For that to happen, we can’t depend on one person. We need everyone: all 53 men knowing their roles, doing their job to the best of their ability, and perfecting their craft.
So if you’ve got guys continually in agreement about wanting to get better, making each other better, pushing each other to be better, the outcome is only going to be what we’ve been seeing in the running back room: a lot of productivity.
INJURIES AND TWO LIKE-MINDED ROOKIES
Up front on the offensive line, we did lose Sam Baker and Mike Johnson for the year. Whenever you lose a teammate, your heart goes out to them. You know they’ve put in just as much work, if not more, than the next man in the huddle to be a starter, and that they wanted to help their team be a winning, successful team. To have a guy lose his opportunity to prove himself and to show his hard work throughout the course of the season is heartbreaking.
At the same time, the National Football League provides opportunities. In this case, with Sam Baker going down, it provides an opportunity for Jake Matthews to move over from right tackle to left tackle.
Jake and Devonta have a lot in common.
One is a first round pick and the other is a fourth round pick, and rookies will make rookie mistakes. But the thing that I can say about both of those guys is they have a great work ethic. They both go out each and every day looking to correct the areas where they may have made a mistake the previous day. Both are humble enough to not act as though they’ve arrived. Instead, you can see in both those players that they want to show that they deserve a spot on the roster.
I really believe Jake is up for the challenge that he’s been presented with here and not just because he was drafted with a high draft pick, but because of his work ethic. He’s one of those people that comes to work, doesn’t say much, and understands that it’s a job. He shows up on time, ready to work, and he’s consistently better day in and day out.
Jake comes from a pedigree of football players. His father is a Hall of Famer.
I’ve had the chance to play with Chris Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long, and Jake’s approach also reminds me a lot of Chris. To see two guys that come from a pedigree of Hall of Fame family members and not only don’t lean on that, but instead want to build their own legacy, is something to admire. Neither guy wants to skate by on his father’s legacy. Each wants to leave his own mark on the National Football League.
CONFIDENCE IN THE TRENCHES
One other reason I’m a big believer in our offensive line this year is offensive line coach Mike Tice. Coach Tice instilled confidence in that group from Day 1. When you want to run the football in the National Football League, you have to have that confidence. You need to know that despite the defense you’re presented with up front, you have the answer to perfecting the play.
Run blocking comes through angles, and the will and attitude of wanting to get your job done. Coach Tice brings that style and presence of confidence, and I think I reinforce that approach with my running style and my credibility on the football field. Even the other running backs are hitting their reads, hitting the hole fast and playing hard. We just want to continue to let the offensive line know that their efforts are not going unnoticed, and that when they make a great block, we want to make big plays on the field. It’s going to be very rewarding to the whole team.
On the other side of the ball, we have a lot of young, talented defensive players. A bunch of our second-year guys were thrown into the fire last year as rookies, and got a lot of game experience. We also added free agents Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai up front, two run stuffers and big guys who understand their role. So you have a group of hungry and talented football players that are willing to make tackles, run sideline to sideline and cover guys like that on the field. They make the defense have the potential to make a huge upswing and be really good.
When you throw all those elements together with guys playing at a high level – let’s simply say that if we can continue to get better week in and week out, we could be a very dangerous team.
A NEW YEAR, A FRESH START
I believe that the difference from last year to now is that we know that it’s going to take all 53 men on deck, plus the coaching staff, to get the job done. We’re not leaning on the fact that the team was successful in the past, and thinking it’s going to just happen easily.
Over the last few days, we’ve seen the locker room get condensed and guys are starting to realize their roles, who’s going to be on the opening day roster, and what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are.
Whenever you go through a training camp, camaraderie is built. That’s what has happened here. We feel like we’re in a brotherhood. We know that only the guys in Atlanta Falcons helmets are going to erase what happened in the past, and get back to our winning ways.
We’re all looking forward to doing just that.