Dunn beats out Norwood as Falcons' starting tailback

Updated: September 6, 2007, 12:58 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Warrick Dunn, who underwent back surgery just days before the start of training camp but vowed to be ready for the start of the regular season, has held off the challenge of the younger Jerious Norwood and retained his status as the Atlanta Falcons' starter.

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Atlanta Falcons

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The decision by first-year coach Bobby Petrino came despite the fact Dunn played in only one preseason game and logged only 14 snaps. There was considerable speculation for much of the offseason that Norwood would supplant Dunn as the starter, with the 10th-year veteran moved to a complementary role.

Norwood, who rushed for 633 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a rookie in 2006, will still get plenty of playing time; he possesses the kind of big-play ability that Petrino covets in his offense. But the experience of the steadier Dunn, the Falcons' leading rusher in each of the past three seasons, provided him enough of an edge to stay atop the depth chart.

"One thing is that Warrick has been there for a long time and the rust will come off quickly," Petrino told local reporters Wednesday. "We expect to get him in there as the starter, give him the ball and let him go."

Dunn, 32, is one of only four tailbacks 30 or older who will start in Week 1.

A first-round choice of Tampa Bay in 1997, Dunn has not demonstrated any signs of slowing down. His three straight 1,000-yard seasons give him five for his career and he needs only 76 yards to move past Jamal Anderson for the No. 3 spot on the Falcons' all-time rushing list. Dunn also is just 539 yards shy of 10,000 for his career.

There was some doubt early in camp that Dunn would be sufficiently rehabilitated from his back surgery for the start of the season. Certainly the timing of the procedure, less than a week before camp opened, put his status in jeopardy. But Dunn experienced problems to just walk during the spring, thought the surgery was necessary for him to get through his 11th NFL season, and decided to gamble that there was enough time for him to recover.

Dunn has not missed a game since the 2003 season.

In Petrino's offense, Dunn is expected to play a bigger role in the passing game, although he hasn't had 30 receptions in a season since 2003. His receiving skills, plus his ability as a blocker in pass protection, might have given him a slight edge over Norwood, an elusive runner with the kind of speed to score from anywhere on the field.

Dunn is also acknowledged as one of the Falcons' strongest leaders, an attribute that will be needed with the loss of quarterback Michael Vick to a Roger Goodell-mandated indefinite suspension.

"My back feels pretty good," said Dunn, who signed with the Falcons as an unrestricted free agent in 2002. "I'm still getting my [stamina] back and getting comfortable with the offense and I haven't worked all that much with Joey Harrington, but the more time I get on the field, the more it's coming on. I see a lot of potential in this offense."

For his career, Dunn has rushed for 9,461 yards and 43 touchdowns on 2,256 carries. He has 426 receptions for 3,771 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.