Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons Is Not Your Typical Rookie QB
Check his ID. Take his fingerprints. Look under the Atlanta Falcons helmet just to make sure.
Matt Ryan isn't really a rookie quarterback, is he?
Ryan blushed when I asked that very question shortly after he guided the Falcons to Sunday's improbable 22-20 home victory over the Chicago Bears. As those inside the Falcons' interview room laughed, Ryan smiled and said, "Yeah, I'm sure."
Rookie quarterbacks usually play—if they're even playing at all—like Baltimore's Joe Flacco did when throwing three interceptions in Sunday's 31-3 loss at Indianapolis.
They don't complete 22 of 30 passes for 301 yards and one touchdown against one of the NFL's fiercest defenses. They don't lead a team that won just four games all of last season to a 4-2 record and a share of first place in the NFC South. And they don't handle pressure the way Ryan did in the waning moments of what seemed a certain Falcons loss after the Bears took a 20-19 lead with 11 seconds remaining.
Chicago's decision to squib the ensuing kickoff backfired when Harry Douglas' 10-yard return gave the Falcons possession at their 44-yard line with six seconds left. The field position prompted offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to change a desperation play call that wide receiver Michael Jenkins said involved "pitching the ball around and trying to get downfield."
Instead, Mularkey called double corner routes designed to put the Falcons in position for a long field goal. Before relaying Mularkey's orders, Ryan did something else you wouldn't expect from a 23-year-old.
"He comes in the huddle and says, 'We're going to win this game,'" Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said.
Ryan then backed up his words.
Just before being hit by Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, Ryan connected with Jenkins along the Falcons' sideline for a 26-yard gain with one second left. Jason Elam did the rest, kicking a 48-yard field goal while Ryan watched from a distance with his fingers crossed.
Told he looked like a "little kid" while awaiting Elam's attempt, Ryan said, "I am just still a kid, really."
That's what makes Ryan's performance even more amazing.
He started eight-for-eight passing and made just about every type of throw imaginable: deep patterns, sideline routes, quick slants, and one completion to White that saw a hurried Ryan throw across almost the entire width of the Georgia Dome field. Ryan picked apart a Bears defense that lost so many members of its secondary to injury that effective nickel and dime packages couldn't be fielded.
"Unreal," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said shortly after giving Ryan a post-game hug.
"Unreal" was being used in another context by Blank last year during the Michael Vick/Bobby Petrino debacles that devastated the franchise. The selection of Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in April's draft was supposed to provide hope for the future.
Nobody, though, thought the future would be now.
"I was talking to some guys not that long ago about how the rookies were performing," said Falcons wide receiver Brian Finneran, a nine-year NFL veteran who caught three passes Sunday. "I went through Sam Baker, Harry Douglas, Curtis Lofton and Chevis Jackson and just stopped there.
"Matt is so composed and shows such confidence in the huddle that you don't think of him as a rookie any more. You can see it. Today was just a telltale sign that the kid is growing up really fast."
Falcons running back Michael Turner also offered praise when asked to compare Ryan to one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks. While playing for San Diego, Turner saw Philip Rivers have the luxury of two years of tutelage sitting behind Drew Brees before becoming a starter in 2006.
"They remind me of each other a lot as far as taking the game seriously, studying, knowing what everybody is supposed to do and what plays would be good against a certain defense," said Turner, who signed with Atlanta during the offseason. "The thing is Philip had to wait, but Matt is going in there right away. I don't know if we'd be (4-2) if Philip had started as a rookie."
Like with Rivers, Ryan has benefitted from having a solid supporting cast. Turner entered the game leading the NFL in rushing. White was second in receiving yards. The offensive line also has played much better than expected, not allowing a sack against a Bears defense known for its strong pass rush.
Ryan had yet to win a game in which Turner rushed for less than 60 yards. The Bears, now 3-3 on the year, limited Turner to 54 yards on 25 carries, forcing Ryan to carry the offensive load.
"He took exactly what we were giving him," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. "He knew exactly where to go. He threw the ball with authority. He didn't look like a rookie."
But he is. I guess.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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