Tough Road Ahead for Matt Ryan, Upstart Atlanta Falcons

Todd CallahanContributor IMay 6, 2009

ATLANTA - DECEMBER 28:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates with running back Michael Turner #33 after Turner scored a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams at Georgia Dome on December 28, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Last season there was no pressure, no expectations, and very little was expected of the Atlanta Falcons.

What a difference a year makes.

On the eve of the team's first minicamp, following the NFL draft, reigning rookie of the year Matt Ryan and the Birds are poised to make history in 2009-'10—earning the team's first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

Last year, the Falcons were arguably the biggest surprise of the 2008-'09 NFL campaign. Behind a rookie quarterback, whose first NFL pass went for a touchdown, and a rookie head coach, Mike Smith, the Falcons went 11-5 and earned a wild-card spot in the playoffs.

Despite a 30-24 setback in the playoff opener to eventual Super Bowl runner-up Arizona, Ryan capped his stellar rookie season with a solid performance in his postseason debut. The former Boston College standout completed 26 of 40 pass attempts for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a pair of interceptions and a fumble that led to the Cardinals' regaining the lead in the second half.

With a year under his belt, Ryan is looking to improve on his rookie numbers of 265 completions on 434 attempts for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

He will have the same cast returning in star running back Michael Turner, who is in his second year with the Falcons, and standout wide receiver Roddy White and newly acquired veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was traded from Kansas City for a second-round draft pick in 2010.

However, Gonzalez is not the only upgrade the Falcons have made, as second-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff addressed defense at the draft. Atlanta, which ranked 25th in the league in stopping the run and 21st against the pass, drafted a defensive player with seven of its eight picks.

Leading the charge was defensive tackle Jerry Peria, out of Mississippi. Peria, the 24th overall pick, is projected to contribute immediately for the Falcons in the middle of the defensive front.  

Atlanta also addressed its struggling defensive secondary by drafting safety William Moore out of Missouri in the second round and cornerback William Middleton with a fifth-round pick.

Moore, Middleton, the rest of the draft picks, and 10 rookie free agents, who were signed last week, will get their first taste of the NFL beginning Friday when the Falcons open their three-day minicamp at 9 a.m.

Rookies and veterans begin preparations in earnest, as they try to make franchise history.

However, the Falcons are in for a more challenging regular-season schedule. Gone are the winless Detroit Lions or the Kansas City Chiefs, who won two games a year ago.

The Falcons open the season by playing host to defending NFL East champion Miami and subsequently entertain division rival Carolina, which won the NFC South last season.

In all, Atlanta plays 14 games against teams that finished .500 or better in 2008. Buffalo (7-9) and San Francisco (7-9) are the lone exceptions. The Falcons also play five games against playoff teams.

So while expectations have been ratcheted up in Falcon nation, so too has the competition, which adds pressure for a second-year quarterback, head coach and GM, who all will be trying to avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx.