FLOWERY BRANCH – A blur of what-ifs followed the ending to the Falcons’ season in February, but one of the biggest rarely is talked about. He was a player. He made it to the Super Bowl … but never made it into the Super Bowl.
“I mean, I was there,” Desmond Trufant said Thursday. “I just wasn’t there like I wanted to be there.”
Everybody wants to move on from the game. But angst and questions will play out for an eternity. So here’s one: What if Desmond Trufant had played?
He had been the Falcons' best defensive player since he was drafted in 2013. He was on his way to a second consecutive Pro Bowl season last year when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the ninth game against Tampa Bay.
At the time, nobody on the Falcons wanted to acknowledge the possibility that Trufant’s season might be over. The team’s public stance on his status was always “day-to-day.”
There was lingering hope/prayer that if he sat long enough, figured a way to manage the pain, maybe ran into a winged fairy with a bag of pixie dust on the street corner, the player could magically make his limbs work like normal and he could return sometime after the bye week.
But it was like telling a horse to gut out a broken leg and run the derby. Trufant tried to make it work. But relatively one-armed cornerbacks are useless in the NFL, especially in playoff runs. So after a month, he and the team finally surrendered to the obvious: surgery, injured reserve and moving on.
“From high school through college and then up to the injury last year, I only missed one game because of an injury,” Trufant said. “It was the first time I ever had to deal with anything like that.”
The Falcons opened training camp Thursday. Every player has a different reason for wanting to get back to the Super Bowl, but none probably felt more frustration after that game in Houston than Trufant. He’s one of the NFL’s best cover cornerbacks, so logic follows he might have been able to do something, anything, when Tom Brady made like a cyborg quarterback and started picking apart the Falcons’ worn and battered defense in the second half.
Was Trufant thinking that on the sideline?
“You know it,” he said.
There is some good that came of all this. Losing Trufant meant more playing time for Jalen Collins and Brian Poole, and the Falcons’ young defense began to come together in the second half of the season. Add Trufant back into the mix, along with previously injured linemen Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby, and the franchise suddenly has as much young talent and depth on defense as it has in years. The Falcons' offense should be in good hands with coordinator Steve Sarkisian. But if you're looking for reasons why the Falcons can get back to the Super Bowl, it probably starts with an improved defense.
The other positive, Trufant said, is he believes he grew as a player and a person by not playing.
“It happened for a reason, and it made me stronger and wiser,” he said. “It made me appreciate everything I had going because I had to take a step back. I had no control over the situation. It just made me work harder, and now I’m excited and moving forward.”
Trufant was injured in the first half of a game against Tampa Bay when he reached to break up a pass. “I was upset because it happened so fast. A step sooner, and I wouldn’t have been hurt,” he said. “But I learned from it, I dealt with it, and I’m a better player now.”
“Just mentally. I got to study the game a lot more because I wasn’t out there. I feel well-rounded right now. You see through a different lens. You see the whole formation. The game is slowed down a lot more because you’re not playing. You can see the different tendencies. So it definitely helped me.”
The cornerback and wide receiver positions tend to breed the biggest egos in football because they’re often in one-on-one situations. Trufant, like Julio Jones, is unique in that he’s not loud or a prima donna. He still lives in Tacoma, Wash., where he grew up with his parents and two brothers (Marcus and Isaiah, both of whom played in the NFL). He’s as down-to-earth a player as the Falcons have.
When the Falcons signed him to a five-year, $68.75 million extension, Trufant said he didn’t make any extravagant purchases for himself or anybody else.
“Nobody needs nothing in the family,” he said. “So I just invested the money. Maybe one day I’ll buy something.”
He has even thought about cutting off his long braids, which he has been growing for seven years.
“I’m kind of tired of them,” he said. “But if I do that, I might lose some speed.” (Before you respond with some aerodynamics lesson, it was a joke.)
Trufant has been cleared medically for full contact, but coach Dan Quinn said he will be eased into practices. He took about half the normal number of reps in secondary drills Thursday. "But his speed, his strength was good," Quinn said.
When Trufant was forced to watch during the Falcons' run to the championship game, Quinn said he spoke to the player "almost every day. Part of the reason we had so much success was because of men like Adrian and Tru. We tried to show them that gratitude, that the team success was because of the work they put in."
It was a nice sentiment, even if it didn't ease Trufant's pain of having to watch the last game.
"That was tough, but I'm just moving forward now," he said. "I want to get back to that spot."
On the other side of the line.
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC's Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.
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