Why you should care
Because he’s about to burn up Houston.
Broken toe, cracked rib, job demotion, sickle cell anemia — Tevin Coleman has never let a setback keep him down for long. Atlanta’s potential Super Bowl X factor chooses, instead, to keep it moving.
This Sunday, at Super Bowl LI in Houston, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots’ defense will have to decide which of Atlanta’s high-profile offensive weapons to focus on shutting down. Enter Coleman. The Falcons’ second-year running back constitutes half of arguably the most dynamic tandem in the NFL. More productive than a typical backup, but still not quite a starter, Coleman plays in tandem with third-year tailback Devonta Freeman, last season’s league leader in rushing touchdowns and a back-to-back Pro Bowler.
Coleman hails from Oak Forest, Illinois, a blue-collar suburb south of Chicago. The son of Liberian immigrants, he excelled at football and track and field from an early age. In high school, his exceptional speed and explosiveness led to scholarship offers from powerhouse programs, but Coleman chose Indiana University — perennial whipping boy of the Big Ten conference — to keep close to home. Three years later, running on a broken toe, Coleman became just the 18th player in Division 1 football history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season. He was named a unanimous All-American and entered the NFL draft, skipping his senior season.
“I really didn’t know what to expect coming out of college,” Coleman told OZY during Super Bowl Week in Houston. “I definitely didn’t think I’d be [at the Super Bowl] this soon. I just knew it was my chance.”
In eras past, a 2,000-yard rusher from the Big Ten would have been a top-ten pick, but today’s pass-happy NFL climate and the high-risk perception of running backs dropped Coleman into the third round, where the Falcons happily swooped in. Competition for the starting job between Coleman and Freeman, a fourth-round pick who had just finished his rookie year backing up departing veteran Steven Jackson, began immediately. Freeman and Coleman boast similar skill sets, but Coleman’s size (6′0″ to Freeman’s 5′8″) and top-tier speed put him ahead. As Atlanta’s starter, the rookie ran for 80 yards in his NFL debut. The next week, Coleman found the end zone but was sidelined with a fractured rib. Freeman took over and became the breakout star of the 2015 season. Meanwhile, Coleman totaled just under 400 yards, one touchdown and only two receptions.
There are a lot of explosive backs in the league, but Atlanta is different.
Atlanta’s head coach, Dan Quinn, also in his second season with the team, tells OZY that the rookie learning curve is a main contributor for the state of his two-headed running duo. “First-year players may think they’ve got it all figured out,” says Quinn, “but there’s a whole other level of work to put in.” While Coleman was simply navigating his rookie season, Freeman was more than ready to take the next step. This season, with Coleman having also made that second-year progression, the Falcons offense is firing on all cylinders and Quinn is sending his new rookies to Coleman for advice. “It’s really difficult to come in as a rookie,” Quinn says. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work that Tevin has put in.”
Balancing the playbook and learning how to best maintain his body throughout the grueling NFL season were Coleman’s biggest hurdles. “It took about a whole year before the offense felt like second nature,” Coleman tells OZY. “The biggest effort was just learning how to be a responsible pro – how to properly take care of my body.” In high school, Coleman learned he carried the sickle cell trait, an inherited blood disorder that can disrupt blood flow to vital organs during physical exertion in high heat or altitude.
Atlanta led the league in points scored this year, and while quarterback Matt Ryan and world-class wide receiver Julio Jones are the team’s best players, the passing game is enhanced tenfold by the exceptional tailback tandem. Coleman has become a valuable asset for Ryan in the passing game, snatching three touchdowns and 421 yards through the air in addition to 520 yards and eight scores on the ground. His size and agility also prove valuable in pass protection, and the mere threat of the dangerous duo drags defensive attention away from the aerial attack, so that Jones – the best receiver in the world — can dominate. A balanced game is a winning game.
Sunday night will test Coleman’s mettle for the first time on such a stage. New England was one of the best teams at defending the run this season, and their veteran linebacker core has big-game experience. Coleman’s greatest impact could come through the air: According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots defense finished 20th in passing defense against running backs. “There’s a lot of explosive backs in the league, but Atlanta is different,” says Rob Ninkovich, Patriots linebacker and team captain. “You have to be highly aware of who’s in the game and where they’re located.”
If Mike Shanahan can dial up some opportunities to get Coleman the ball on the edge, the dual-threat back has as good a chance as any to lead the denial of Tom Brady’s fifth championship. With a big Super Bowl performance, Coleman would become a household name; odds put a Coleman MVP award at 33 to 1, while Freeman’s chances are 16 to 1. It’s hard to imagine that the pair can remain long-term teammates if either man breaks out. Careers evolve — one radical performance could decide the fate of both.
But on the eve of the biggest game of his life, future career moves are the furthest thing from Coleman’s mind. His parents are in town, enjoying their son’s ascent to the American Dream. “They might be more excited than me,” Coleman jokes. “I’m just soaking this all in, man. All I want to do is meet that trophy.”