FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — What were the chances that defensive end John Abraham was going to return as a member of the Atlanta Falcons last season?
Abraham, who hit unrestricted free agency before the Falcons re-signed him on March 16, said he thought he was gone.
“I’m about to go somewhere else and about to take the flight to Tennessee,” Abraham said, then picked up his cell phone and offered a reenactment of how the conversation went. “‘Look, y’all, I ain’t going. No, I’m going to stay in Atlanta.’
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“‘Are you sure, John?'”
“‘No, I ain’t going.'”
It ought to be a major relief to the Falcons that the 34-year-old elected to remain in Atlanta, where he is now in the seventh season of his 13-year career and still one of the league’s top pass-rushers. He has remained as one of the Falcons’ most integral defensive players on a unit that relies on the big play – sacks and turnovers – to win; the Falcons rank 20th in total defense but are 7-0 nonetheless. Abraham’s seven sacks tie him for seventh in the NFL and, perhaps more importantly, he is tied for third in the league with three forced fumbles.
On Sunday, the Falcons host Dallas (3-4). The teams last played in 2009 but Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said he doesn’t see anything different except for maybe how the Falcons use him.
“It’s amazing how it seems like the guy never ages a year every time I look at him on tape,” Romo said of Abraham.
This season, Abraham has only gone two games without a sack. Last year, Abraham was dogged by a groin injury, which he said he played through. Even though he finished with 9.5 sacks, he failed to register a sack in nine of the 15 games for which he was active.
“I think John is on a mission to be a very effective pass-rusher,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “I think he’s doing that.”
Among the reasons why Abraham said he changed his thinking and decided to stay in Atlanta was the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan – the same defensive coordinator that Abraham had as a rookie with the New York Jets in 2000.
Nolan has coached both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses and inherited a 4-3. He has made the Falcons’ defense much more multiple and Abraham has benefited from that. Nolan’s defenses are so varied that an opposing offensive line might not know what Abraham is doing from play to play.
“Yeah, I don’t like being in one place,” Abraham said. “I like going left and right, dropping here, rushing sometimes. It’s more fun than if I play (only) right end. They know where I’m going to be at. Now it’s ‘John might be here, John might be here.'”
Nolan, with those 3-4 tendencies, has used Abraham much more often in a two-point stance than the Falcons did in Smith’s first four seasons, when Brian VanGorder served as the defensive coordinator. Abraham noted that he entered the NFL as a linebacker and, at 6-foot-4, 263 pounds, he still carries the build of one. He said he prefers the two-point stance, citing the example of how it helped him to sniff out a screen designed for Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson last Sunday in a 30-17 win over the Eagles.
“You can see the whole field better,” he said. “You kind of look at people. You see what’s going on, see the formation better. A lot of times if you’re in a three-point stance, you can’t see a lot motion as an end.”
Falcons defensive line coach Ray Hamilton likened Abraham’s taking to the two-point stance to a golfer’s having more confidence in a certain type of club.
“When you look on that club, whatever you think that club looks like is really what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said. “So if he thinks that helps him, then that works for him.”
But Hamilton said Abraham’s biggest attribute remains his speed – even at an age when he should be slowing down.
“He can still get off the ball with the young guys,” he said. “… Anything over 30, you start to slow down, but he’s not slowing down and he looks very good out there doing it.”
Falcons center Todd McClure is a year Abraham’s elder and at a time when many would expect players their age to slow down, both are excelling.
“He’s a guy when you practice against him all the time, you hear our tackles say, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to play against him in a game,'” McClure said. “He’s a guy that can run by you and make you miss and make you look silly out there.”
Abraham did that earlier this season against Oakland second-year tackle Willie Smith, who entered 2012 with only three starts under his belt. Abraham had three sacks in that game and drew a couple of holding and false start penalties against Smith.
“He’s been in enough plays to where he can tell a tackle, if he’s sitting in his stance, how he’s going to set against him and that’s always an advantage,” McClure said of Abraham.
While success has come on the field for Abraham this season, he ran into some trouble off it. He was arrested in September on a misdemeanor when Atlanta police and firefighters asked him numerous times not to enter a taped off area at the city’s Atlantic Station commercial and residential development, where Abraham has a condo. The authorities were in the process of handling a situation with a woman who was threatening to jump off a building.
Abraham said he it was a misunderstanding and on Wednesday he reiterated that, along with the fact that it has not distracted him from his play.
“It’s cool,” he said.
While the Falcons remain the NFL’s only unbeaten team, few observers are ready to crown them as Super Bowl champions. That’s OK with Abraham.
“We ain’t getting any respect,” he said, “until we get the ring, man.”