Surviving the NFL game takes more than world class skill and freakish abilities. Players who make it in pro football also have to experience a degree of luck. Most first-round picks are afforded the opportunity to start or compete for a starting position right away. They are immediately allowed to display their talents on the big stage and sink or swim strictly based on their performance on the field.
Guys like Atlanta Falcons diminutive ground grappler Devonta Freeman just need a little daylight and they create a shine so bright and encompassing that it gives every mid-round pick the belief that they can become Sonny Jurgensen, Steve Largent (117th pick), Charles Haley (96th pick) or Charlie Joiner (pick 93) or Joe Theisman (pick 93) -- one of the all-time greats.
At just 5-8, the 23-year-old Freeman averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season as a rookie out of the football factory that is Florida State. His stats weren't impressive; then again he wasn’t awarded the opportunity to be featured in the team’s offense. He was a fourth-round pick in 2014 and those guys usually have to earn their way up the food chain. There’s no red carpet or expectations of Canton. A team’s taking a shot on you because they recognize some abilities that translate well at the pro level.
Veteran Steven Jackson was the only Atlanta running back with more than 100 carries. He had 190, while Freeman had 65 and Jacquizz Rodgers had 58 for the NFL’s 24th-ranked rushing offense. In fact, entering this season, rookie rusher Tevin Coleman, who ran for 2,046 yards (7.5 per carry) at Indiana during his final year in college behind a suspect offensive line, was the projected starter in the backfield. They still didn’t know what Freeman was capable of.
"You only get one shot. Do not miss your chance to blow."
As fate would have it, Freeman was forced into a starting role last week when Coleman broke a rib. Through injury, as often happens, Freeman was awarded the opportunity to be “The Man.” Most fourth-round picks don’t get that opportunity and often times the ones that do, don’t come through like a Grade A starter.
Freeman hit the ground ripping and running, as he powered the Falcons to victory over the Dallas Cowboys with 141 yards and 3 scores in Week 3. On Sunday, he helped the Atlanta Falcons run up a 42-0 lead on the Houston Texans and improve to 4-0. Freeman jetted for 68 yards, had 81 yards receiving, and ran in another TD triple before spending much of the second half of the 42-21 massacre on the bench.
The last time the Atlanta Falcons had a 1,000-yard rusher was in 2011 season when Michael "the Burner" Turner scored 11 touchdowns after gaining 1,340 yards on the ground. That was the third season in four where he eclipsed 1,000 yards in a single campaign.
The Falcons finished 17th in the league in rushing in 2011. Prior to that, they were 12th in 2010, 15th the year before and finished second in the NFL in 2008 when Turner notched 1,699 rushing yards and Jerious Norwood added 489.
Since that prolific rushing season -- Turner’s exit performance with the Falcons -- Atlanta’s rushing attack has been anemic.
From 2012 to 2014, the Falcons never ranked higher than 24th on the league’s rushing rankings, averaging a 28th-place finish.
Kyle Shanahan: Pedigree, Purpose and Performance
Something had to change because Atlanta was quickly gaining a reputation as a talented but underachieving bunch. Then Kyle Shanahan took over this season at offensive coordinator. He was known for orchestrating great pass-oriented offenses with an opportunity for rushers to gain chunks of yardage in Washington under his dad Mike and last seaon in Cleveland. In August it was reported however, that Shanahan was deviating from his passing-first strategy and implementing a new blocking scheme which would improve the ground game.
It worked, but w'ere not sure that Shanahan knew Freeman would be the guy to make it go. A few weeks ago, Freeman was an obscure back who never rushed for more than 38 yards in a game, but as Freeman told reporters after the game, “Opportunity is everything,” and he’s making the most of his. It really doesn’t matter when Coleman comes back now. One missed game was too many for the rookie, who now must chill and watch Freeman steal his glory.
Freeman’s TD barrage marks just the eighth time since 1960 that a player has scored three rushing touchdowns in consecutive weeks, according to ProFootballReference.com. According to NFL Network, Freeman’s furiously fast start puts him in an elite class of pigskin pushers that includes LaDainian Tomlinson (who holds the N.F.L. record with three consecutive games), Priest Holmes (who did it twice), Marshall Faulk, Stephen Davis (the leader with 9 TDS in the first four games of ’99 season), Terry Allen, Joe Morris and Jim Taylor.
The Falcons are finally “balanced” on both sides of the ball and looking better prepared for a legit playoff run than in past seasons where high expectations never materialized. Atlanta’s passing game is one of the best in the NFL with Julio Jones and Co. snatching everything that moves. And now they have the human bowling ball wrecking shop, scoring TDS and keeping the opposing secondary honest and nothing short of dog food for the play action passes of Matt Ryan.
If Coleman didn’t go down we’d all be wondering if Freeman was just another back. Fourth-round running backs don’t usually end up leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage, but Freeman is on his way.
He's hungry, but staying humble, wearing the number 24 as a tribute to his late aunt who passed at the tender age. After Sunday's impressive conquest, Freeman said he didn't care who starts when Coleman returns because he just wants to win and play "for his brothers."
We know he's lying, but fourth-round draft picks have to say those kinds of things. Nothing is guaranteed. Three brilliant games doesn't erase a perception folks already have of you.
One thing is certain. HC Dan Quinn and Shanahan will have to cut off Freeman's fingers to get the Miami product to relinquish that ball. He's on some Omar Epps in the The Program mission.
He’s another example of a superstar who slipped through the cracks, but was lucky enough to get a chance to show everyone what they almost missed.