Falcons' Line Now Relies on Baker

Falcons' Line Now Relies on Baker

Sam Baker's tutorial year is over. With the retirement of Todd Weiner, the left tackle position belongs solely to Baker.

Weiner, 33, was a mainstay on the Falcons offensive line the past seven seasons. He played in all 17 games last season, making 11 starts, after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee in 2007. The thought of playing another season in agonizing pain was too much for the rugged Weiner to fathom.

"It's been something that has been weighing on my mind for quite some time to be honest with you," Weiner told the Journal-Constitution. "After going through the season that we had, and the amount of discomfort and pain that I was going through with the knee, it was just time."

Weiner played last season after microfracture surgery. He was invaluable after Baker missed time due to a concussion and back surgery. Baker started five games, but split time with Weiner throughout the season.

Baker will now be in-charge of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan's blind side. If he was paying attention to Weiner, he should have some decide notes on how a pro went about his business.

Weiner would go through light practices during most weeks, but he was ready to go on Sundays.

"Todd Weiner epitomizes toughness, grit and everything a championship-caliber football player should be," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Weiner, an 11-year NFL veteran who started 118 of 152 career games, spent four seasons in Seattle after being selected in the second round of the 1998 draft (47th overall). He signed with Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent in 2002.

Weiner, who played for four head coaches in seven seasons with the Falcons, was signed to play right tackle, which was the blind side for left-handed quarterback Michael Vick. He would switch over to left tackle to protect right-handed quarterbacks over his last two seasons under Bobby Petrino and Smith. He also played for Dan Reeves and Jim Mora.

"It's emotional, no question about it," Weiner said. "But at the same time it's my decision, but that doesn't make it any easier." Weiner helped the Falcons lead the league in rushing from 2004-06. Last season's line helped the Falcons lead the league in rushing for most of the season before finishing second.

Weiner was on four teams that reached the NFL playoffs, including the 2004 Falcons team that went to the NFC championship game. "I feel like there was a lot that we accomplished on the field," Weiner said. "But I would have liked to have accomplished more. I would have liked to have gone to the Super Bowl before my career was over."

Weiner knows that retirement will have some tough times. "I'm onto the next chapter in my life," Weiner said. "I'm looking forward to it. There is no question that I'll miss the game. I'll miss the locker room.

"That part is going to be tough, but I'm looking forward to some change."


--Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and his assistant Paul Dunn did one of the most remarkable jobs - league wide - as they took basically the same players who had given up 47 sacks and turned them into a unit that gave up just 17 sacks (fifth lowest in the league) and paved the way for the league's second leading rushing attack (152.7 yard per game).

"The preseason pundits were talking about this might be the worst offensive line in the NFL," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I think the guys kind of took it personally. Other than Sam Baker, the Falcons were incredibly injury-free. The rest of the starters - left guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, right guard Harvey Dahl and right tackle Tyson Clabo -- answered the bell in all 16 regular games.

--McClure, a 10-year veteran, helped to pull things together for the unit. He has started 112 consecutive games dating back to 2001 and the Falcons may elect to fine and start training his heir apparent. "We'd like to have him for a number of years longer," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "The reality is that we also have to be cognizant of the future. So it's important that we do our due diligence when we are researching the offensive linemen and the interior line."

--The Falcons search for Alge Crumpler's replacement continues. The Falcons released the pass-catching tight end, a four-time Pro Bowler on Feb. 15, 2008. He was replaced with players known more as blockers than receivers. In an effort to continue the growth of quarterback Matt Ryan and to expand the offense, the Falcons will address the position - in free agency or the NFL draft.

The Falcons threw 434 passes last season, but only 30 (6.9 percent) were intended for a tight end. Justin Peelle, Ben Hartsock and Jason Rader combined for just 19 catches. The Falcons want a tight end to help when Ryan is blitzed, but one with enough speed to split the seam on deep routes against Cover-Two zone defenses.

"Any time that you look at the tight end position, it's a high percentage shot on the field," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

--Roddy White was the main target of the passing attack as Ryan threw 148-of-434 (34 percent) passes his way. He caught 88 passes for 1,382 yards, but dropped nine balls, including one in the end zone against Denver that could have led to a victory.

The Falcons will likely try to re-sign White before he enters the final year of his contract. He could command a contract similar to that of Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (four years, $40 million).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are encouraged by that evolution on the receiver side. They will help Matt continue to grow in this offense." -- Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff on the development of the team's wide receivers.


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