Just call him “Standby Stephen.”
Over the past four seasons, Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas started 46 regular-season games.
This season, with the team looking to improve its pass coverage of tight ends from the linebacker spot, he was demoted in favor younger players Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow, undrafted rookies who’ve cracked the starting lineup.
Instead of moping, Nicholas continued to play and practice with enthusiasm and a positive spirit.
Now, with injuries to Worrilow (knee) and middle linebacker Akeem Dent (sprain right ankle), Nicholas’ number is back up, and he appears set to return to the lineup against the New York Jets on “Monday Night Football.”
“I’ve enjoyed coaching Stephen this last year and a half probably more than any player that I’ve ever coached, I really mean that,” defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “He’s a pleasure to be around. He’s a real team guy. Every day in practice, he’s upbeat.”
Even as the team, which didn’t draft any linebackers, tried to replace him, Nicholas remained upbeat.
“We jumped into a walk-through the other day, and he was the first guy to jump in there on the ‘show team’ and say ‘hey what can I do to help show the defense’ as oppose to coming over and kind of pouting or saying can I stand in the back, which is what a lot of guys do,” Nolan said. “They don’t grow up enough to know that this is important, too.”
Last season, defensive end Ray Edwards didn’t handle his demotion well, and when his attitude became belligerent, he was shown the door.
The Falcons could have done the same thing with Nicholas if he handled his demotion differently. Now, he’s no longer insurance and will return to the field.
“It’s about being a professional,” Nicholas said. “You do whatever the team needs. It’s not a selfish game. It’s a team game. I never did anything by myself to win a game around here. It’s always about the team and the best way that you can help out and contribute.”
The Falcons are comfortable counting on Nicholas, who has played the weakside and strongside linebacker positions in the past.
“He is an extremely important guy,” Nolan said. “Now, he’s back in the thick (of things). Good things should happen for a guy that keeps his spirits up like he did.”
Nicholas made his lone start of the season against Miami. He’s a prideful player, but didn’t let a demotion affect his approach to the game.
“He continued to work, and he didn’t act like it really phased him, although there is no question that it had to,” Nolan said. “I mean they all want to play. So, I feel good about him being in there.”
A petulant attitude would have have rubbed Nolan the wrong way.
“Had he pouted and gone around (in a bad mood) you would have said ‘oh God, this isn’t good’ because typically with pouters, it doesn’t really pan out real good,” Nolan said. “He’s 180 degrees from that thing. He’s a very positive guy. I feel good about him in (the lineup).”
In addition to injuries to Worrilow and Dent, starter Sean Weatherspoon (sprain right foot) is on recallable injured-reserve and is out until Week 11.
“It does you no good to worry about it,” Nolan said. “You deal with it. It’s like cards. You can’t worry about the next card he gives you so much. You have to play your cards.
Nicholas, who recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarter against New England on Sunday night, wants to be in Nolan’s shoes one day.
Over the summer he went to the Coaches Academy, held by the NFL Player Engagement and the NCAA in Charlotte, N.C.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera, University of Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst, former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly and Nolan served as a keynote speakers at the three-day seminar on the coaching profession.
“I had the opportunity to go up there and sit in on some good meetings and learn a lot,” Nicholas said. “Just from a coaching standpoint, and now I see some things differently as a player.”
Players playing for Nicholas when he becomes a coach would be wise to put the team first.
Staff writer Michael Cunningham contributed to this article.