ATLANTA — For the last two years, Atlanta Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo has organized a campaign, replete with baseball caps and backed by social media, to try and get the team’s center Todd McClure voted to the Pro Bowl. The sentiment was partly playful, but mostly sincere.
When Clabo made the Pro Bowl himself for the 2010 season, his comments were mostly about how he felt McClure was deserving of the honor.
And so on Monday when the team held a press conference to announce that McClure was retiring after 13 seasons and 166 starts, including 144 consecutively, it was fitting that Clabo attended.
He was not the only one of McClure’s former teammates to attend. Quarterback Matt Ryan, left guard Justin Blalock and left tackle Sam Baker also were present.
As team owner Arthur Blank noted, “In the offseason, it’s not easy to find these guys. They disappear like moles.”
And it was the sight of those teammates, standing with McClure at a difficult moment – at age 36 he said he did not think it would come this soon – that made McClure emotional at times and caused his speech to quiver.
McClure never did make the Pro Bowl and he was never an overpowering player at 296 pounds, especially going against nose tackles against whom he might be giving away 50 pounds, but he brought his wits to a position that probably requires the most on the offense after the quarterback. Not bad for a seventh-round draft pick whom Blank said the team plans to commemorate in its “Ring of Honor.”
McClure’s father was a coach and Falcons head man Mike Smith said that was something that jumped out at him quickly when he took over the team in 2008. Smith said if the coaching staff had an issue with the offensive line during a game, McClure would tell them he would fix it and then it would be.
Smith, who treats players in the “over 30 club” with more deference than he does the younger players, said McClure was as close to the coaching staff as a player could be. Teams need those bridges, otherwise communication can break down and the staff’s message can get lost on the players.
“If we don’t have mentors and guys Like Todd McClure on our team,” Smith said. “We don’t have the success we’ve had the last five years.”
Outside of personnel evaluators and coaches who watch film in minute detail, it can often be difficult for the untrained eye to detect the true effectiveness of an offensive lineman. One of the most telling commentaries about McClure’s value to the team came early in the 2011 season. McClure’s streak of 144 consecutive starts had come to an end because of a knee injury. Joe Hawley started the first two games in his place.
The offensive line was a mess. Ryan was sacked nine times in the first two games. McClure returned for the third game when Ryan was sacked four more times, but the center wasn’t 100 percent, as he eventually had to sit out the fifth game, as well. Smith threatened to make wholesale changes to the unit, promising an open competition.
Eventually, once McClure regained his health, the Falcons tweaked the scheme slightly and made a change at right guard. They got it figured out. After being sacked 13 times in the first three games, Ryan only was sacked 13 more in the final 13 games and the Falcons made the playoffs. The fact that Ryan has largely gone uninjured in his five seasons is a testament to McClure. Ryan also has spoken of how he leaned on McClure as a rookie, helping the Falcons to a miraculous 11-5 season in ’08 after the destruction wrought by Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick the year before.
“I’m looking forward to Monday morning and being able to walk,” McClure quipped on Monday about his coming retirement.
When the team chose to make Peter Konz its second-round pick in 2012, the handwriting was on the proverbial wall for McClure. As he hinted at on Monday, the team appeared ready to move on at his position, in part because of a salary-cap crunch it is facing and, with his lengthy tenure, McClure’s minimum salary would have been difficult to fit in.
McClure also had a quip on that topic.
“My offer to the Falcons was that I’d play for $10 million, no training camp and half of the home games,” he said, “but Tony (Gonzalez) had already taken that offer.”
In seriousness, McClure’s situation in comparison to that of Gonzalez, the future hall of famer who went into last season saying he was 95 percent sure he would retire but then chose to return instead, underscores how few players get to go out on their own terms. It also shows how fortunate Gonzalez is. In the NFL, his situation is the exception and not the rule.
In his opening remarks, McClure looked to his three teammates in the trenches and spoke about what most professional athletes miss the most when their playing days end.
“I didn’t know these guys were going to be here and that’s what I’m going to miss most about this game,” he said. “Guys like this that are sitting right here. The friendships that we’ve had, the conversations that we’ve had, the joy we’ve had in the locker room on a Sunday after a big win. The struggles that we’ve gone through and have gotten each other through, I just want to tell you guys right now, I appreciate y’all for showing up. Y’all are friends for life and I cherish every moment that we’ve spent together.”
The media, too, will miss McClure. He was always available and forthright and insightful in a culture in which too many players are robotic or fear their coaches’ wrath if they say something that departs from the pre-programmed script.
This past season, McClure grew a little surly when he faced questions about the team’s inability to gain a touchdown in a short-yardage situation in a loss to New Orleans. The situation raised doubts about his unit that were highlighted in the team’s 24-2 playoff loss a season earlier and McClure took it personally.
But he remained professional and earnest. That’s the most one could ask. On Monday, he talked about the stress of playing and how that is one thing he will not miss.
“It’s going to be a lot easier blocking, sitting on the couch,” he said. “I can tell you that.”
No doubt it will. For the Falcons’ sake, they had better hope that Konz is ready to fill the big shoes that McClure is leaving empty.