Falcons' Dunn gets better with age

In his ninth year, former Buc star Warrick Dunn is enjoying the best season of his career.

Published November 18, 2005

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Warrick Dunn hasn't changed much.

Still short.

Still light.

Still too polite to say he told us so.

For years, Dunn yearned for the chance to be an every-down running back in the NFL, insisting he could handle a heavy workload, that his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame was not as fragile as it appeared.

Apparently, he was right.

In his ninth season, at an age when many running backs start to decline, Dunn is more productive than ever. Entering Sunday's NFC South game against the Bucs, Dunn is the league's third-leading rusher with 896 yards and the No. 1 option in the Falcons' top-ranked running attack.

Ah, finally.

"It's really been a blessed year for me," said Dunn, the former Florida State and Tampa Bay star. "Given the opportunity, I felt like I could perform at a high level like all the other prototype backs, the guys who have the size. It's just getting opportunities."

Dunn, a slashing runner, always has shared the backfield with a bruiser. First, it was Mike Alstott in Tampa. Now, it's T.J. Duckett, a 254-pounder who would rather run over would-be tacklers than evade them. Fleet-footed quarterback Michael Vick adds a third dimension to what the Falcons call their DVD backfield.

But Vick, though he leads all quarterbacks with 364 rushing yards, is trying to evolve as a passer, and Duckett has been limited the past six weeks by an ankle sprain.

So, Dunn has done it all.

At the ripe old age of 30.

Gaining just shy of 100 yards a game - 99.6 to be exact - Dunn is on pace for career highs of 1,593 yards and 314 carries. Those totals would easily surpass his career marks of 1,133 yards with the Bucs in 2000 and 265 carries with the Falcons last season.

His 5.1 yards a carry is second to NFL rushing leader Shaun Alexander of Seattle, who averages 5.4.

"He's paid a lot of attention to his body so he's not worn out and he's not beat down," Falcons coach Jim Mora said. "It's fun to watch him. He plays like a 26-year-old. He's still got that youthful spark to him."

Long recognized as one of the league's top humanitarians, Dunn received the 2004 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for his combination of community service and on-field performance. Through his Homes for the Holidays program, Dunn helps single mothers become first-time homeowners by making the downpayments on new, fully furnished homes in Tampa, Atlanta and his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.

The program is dear to Dunn, who raised five younger siblings after his mother, a Baton Rouge police officer, was killed during a robbery while working a second job as a security guard in 1993. But during the preseason, Dunn said he hoped to be recognized for more than just his charitable works. His goal was to rush for 1,300 yards.

He might need to amend the goal.

"I'm a different runner than I used to be," said Dunn, who has nine runs of 15 yards or more, including 59- and 65-yarders. "I'm patient. I understand defenses a lot better. I can see things a lot better. My overall understanding of the game is better. Also, you learn how to take care of your body and get ready to play on Sunday."

Dunn paces himself through the week. He rarely practices on Wednesday, goes hard on Thursday and fine tunes on Friday. After hours, he skips nights on the town for relaxing at home.

"I'm getting my rest," he said.

And, better late than never, everything he always wanted.

"Warrick is a guy who over his entire life has probably defied logic in the sense that most people look at his measurables and have certain expectations, and he always exceeds it," said Falcons general manager Rich McKay, who drafted Dunn when he held the some position for the Bucs. "He's done it on the field and off the field. Myself, I'm no longer surprised by it."

Dunn's success comes at a time of newfound personal happiness. His siblings are grown and living away from home, so for the first time in his life, Dunn is learning to be comfortable with himself.

"I've been to counseling. I'm able to breathe more, able to talk more," Dunn said. "I'm much more interactive. It took me a long time to get to that point. I held a lot inside and tried to deal with a lot. But I'm a happier person today than I was years ago, and I think it reflects on the field."

Perhaps for the first time, Dunn sees a hidden benefit to not getting his wish to be an every-down back early in his career. Spared the pounding of 25 or 30 carries a game, he remains at the top of his game. Every carry that went to someone else brought him to this point.

"I may not have liked the situation, but indirectly, it's been beneficial to me," Dunn said. "They're always going to know that I want the ball as much as possible. And now, I know they really believe in me and what I can do."