Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Atlanta Falcons' Todd McClure
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Todd McClure gets more than a bit uncomfortable when asked about a campaign by his fellow linemen to get him selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
He relishes the anonymity of life as an NFL center, though those closest to him know how important he is to the Atlanta Falcons.
"Todd McClure is one of the cornerstones not only of this team, but of this entire organization," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "He's been around a long time. He's an incredible leader. His work ethic is second to no one on this football team. For me, personally, he's been huge in my development."
McClure took over as Atlanta's starting center midway through the 2000 season. He's been there ever since, including a streak of 144 consecutive starts -- the longest in franchise history -- that finally ended this season when he missed the first two games recovering from a knee injury.
His knee feels fine now and, at age 34, McClure feels like he can play another two or three years.
"I love being around the guys," he said Wednesday. "And I want to get a ring. I think we've got makings of it around here. I'd like to get shot at it this year."
The Falcons (7-5) head into Sunday's game at Carolina tied for the NFC wild-card lead with Detroit and Chicago.
McClure isn't ready for the rocking chair just yet, but he knows he's running out of chances to win a championship.
"Everybody," he said, "would like to have a ring before they're done."
Tyson Clabo said it's about time McClure got some personal recognition as well. The Falcons right tackle made up red caps for everyone on the line that say "McClure for Pro Bowl," along with his number, 62.
Make no mistake, Clabo initially started the campaign as a bit of a joke, because he knew it would get under McClure's skin. That part has worked out perfectly.
"I think it's ridiculous," McClure said. "Just Clabo being Clabo, I guess."
His teammate said there's a serious side to the effort, as well.
"It's tongue in cheek, but it's also legitimate," Clabo said. "Under his reign at center, we've sent multiple quarterbacks to the Pro Bowl, multiple running backs to the Pro Bowl, tight ends, receivers, other linemen. Well, he initiates every bit of it. I just think he gets overlooked a little bit."
McClure's importance to the team was apparent at the beginning of the season. He went down with an injured right knee during the preseason and missed the first two games. With Joe Hawley filling in, Ryan was sacked a total of nine times.
In the nine games McClure started since then (he had to sit out against Green Bay after his knee flared up), the Falcons have given up just 19 sacks.
"Todd is an integral part of our team," coach Mike Smith said. "We really missed Todd. When he got back in there, you saw the calming effect he had in terms of the number of sacks."
Coming out of LSU as a seventh-round pick in 1999, McClure certainly didn't have the look of someone who'd stick around this long. In fact, he struggled to make it to his first game with the Falcons.
On the second day of his very first training camp, McClure tore up his right knee blocking during a counter play. A rushing linemen fell into him, tearing the ACL. The rookie was done of the year and feared that he'd never get another chance.
"I thought it was over before my career even got started," McClure recalled. "Luckily, they put me on IR (injured reserve). I didn't know if they would just to injury settle with me or what, but they put me on IR. It all worked out from there."
McClure has been through plenty of ups and downs with the Falcons, from a pair of division titles and a memorable playoff win in Green Bay to Michael Vick heading off to prison for running a dogfighting ring and a miserable few months with Bobby Petrino as coach.
Petrino bailed on the Falcons with three games left in the dismal 2007 season, having not even made it through a full season. If he had returned for another year in Atlanta, McClure likely would've retired.
He still gets worked up when Petrino's name is mentioned.
"I don't like him," McClure said bluntly.
Revitalized since Mike Smith took over as coach, McClure has kept chugging right along through three straight winning seasons and two trips to the playoffs.
"He's got a lot of respect in this room," Clabo said, "and when I talk to other guys, he's got a lot of respect around the league as well."
Ryan, especially, credits McClure with easing the quarterback through the difficult transition from college to the NFL after he was drafted by the Falcons in 2008 and thrown immediately into the starting job as Vick's successor.
"He carried me for two years in terms of pass protection and getting things set in the run game," Ryan said. "He took a lot off my plate and allowed me to come along and get more comfortable within the system. I was fortunate to come into an organization where we had a veteran center. I think that made a world of difference."
The respect of his teammates and peers is good enough for McClure. He doesn't need a Pro Bowl to justify the worth of his career.
Then again, there would be one up side to finally getting picked.
"My kids have always said they wanted to go to Hawaii," McClure said. "That would be a good way to go."