October 19, 2008
There's a coin displayed in the Atlanta Falcons' team museum in the lobby of the franchise's headquarters in Flowery Branch, GA. It's inconspicuous enough that the average passer-by may neither notice it, nor recall its significance.
Last February, in the wake of a miserable season, the Atlanta Falcons flipped this coin to earn the rights to the third-pick in the NFL Draft, a draft that landed the Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Owner Arthur Blank said it was the most important coin flip in the franchise's history and newly-minted General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said he hoped winning that coin flip was merely a start for bigger and better things in Atlanta.
Little did they know, that small event would possibly change the course of the embattled franchise for years to come.
The nation came to know the quarterback, known around Chestnut Hill as "Matty Ice" (the nickname he earned in high school, but solidified its use during his time at Boston College), through the course of last season's college football season as he lead Boston College up the rankings.
This nickname was on full display Oct. 25, 2007 when No. 8-ranked Virginia Tech hosted No. 2 B.C. on a soggy Thursday night in a nationally-televised ESPN game.
Dominated for the entire game, B.C. found itself on the remarkable side of Ryan's right arm. Down 10, with less than three minutes left, he engineered a comeback, culminating with a 24-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining in the game. This would not be the last time Ryan would find himself in an 11-second situation.
"Special" was a word that came to be synonymous with Ryan last season.
Said B.C.'s offensive coordinator, Steve Logan, "I knew Matt was good. It's his intellect. When I start teaching quarterbacks, I tell them, 'You've got to be a good defensive coordinator before you can be a good quarterback, so you can understand what the defense is doing.'"
While with the Eagles, Ryan learned the fundamentals of being a good quarterback: Intelligence, patience, composure, and commitment.
The lesson on commitment came early, in the first game of his junior year. In that game, he suffered a high-ankle sprain. Not playing through the injury was never a question.
With six games to play in that season, he broke a bone in his left foot. Always one to seize an opportunity to rally his team around him, he continued to play the season on the broken foot.
There would never again be a question about this young quarterback's commitment.
His lineman, Gosder Cherilus said, "Think about it. It makes you want to go out and compete for him. As an offensive line, it makes you feel good knowing if you do your part, he'll do his."
As the college football season wound to a close, speculation began on the draft status of every player, including the fifth-year senior Ryan.
At 6'5", 225 pounds, Ryan looked like the prototype NFL quarterback. However, questions arose regarding his penchant for the interception (19 in 2007, second most among college quarterbacks).
Would the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner be the next Manning or the next next Tim Couch?
Baltimore, Kansas City, and Atlanta were quickly identified as prime candidates to draft a quarterback.
Baltimore's Steve McNair experiment ended sourly with the aging quarterback's declining 2007 performance and retirement at the end of the season.
Kansas City had a young quarterback in Brodie Croyle, yet there was concern about his ability to lead the Chiefs.
And Atlanta, on the heals of the Mike Vick incarceration, were not only looking for a quarterback, but a new face to represent a franchise sorely needing a makeover.
Asked about his thoughts on Atlanta, Ryan said "I don't think one person will be the cause for change down there, but I certainly think that I can help. Community has always been something that's important to me and it was important to me while I was at Boston College. It may work out, it may not. We'll have to see."
Fans in Atlanta would quickly learn of Ryan's pragmatic and reasoned approach to all things football. This was just something else Ryan had to learn.
The realization that football is a game and there are some elements and events within it that will be out of your control, much like life, is a lesson Ryan gained at 16.
In 2001, riding in a car with his brother, they were rear-ended. The collision pushed their car into the path of an oncoming fuel truck. Matt suffered a broken ankle and his brother, Mike (a Division III quarterback) shattered his throwing elbow, an injury that would prevent him from playing again.
Injuries were one thing, but the Ryan brothers recognized they were fortunate to have survived the crash. Determined not to take anything for granted and realizing his brother's injuries could have easily been his own, Ryan developed that sober approach that allows him to remain cool in the face of an oncoming blitz.
As Falcons coach Mike Smith said about Ryan leading up to the draft, "You look for mental toughness. Do they play hard? Are they consistent in the effort they put out? I think he's an outstanding player. He comes as advertised."
The team said the decision to go with the quarterback was made on the Thursday before the draft. However, the team was in awe of this young man, weeks prior, after meeting him for a private workout.
Owner Arthur Blank, Dimitroff, Smith, and Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey sat down to dinner with him in Boston and in him they saw the man to execute their plan.
During the interview the following day, they all sat in awe as Matt diagrammed and dissected plays on the fly as the franchise riddled him with pop-quiz-styled questions. Clearly he had done his homework and their decision was possibly made in those moments.
"They really tried to stump him. They really gave him some difficult stuff in terms of trying to find out what he knows and he doesn't know," Coach Smith said of Ryan's meeting with Mularkey and Quarterbacks Coach Bill Musgrave. "He was outstanding on the board. He's very cerebral."
The decision to go with Ryan with their pick was deemed, by some, a safe pick, taking a player, in light of previous off-field issue for the team, with stability written all over him. There was little concern that the quarterback would embarrass the franchise, yet his ability was still in question.
Blank didn't help matters when he made the rookie the fourth-highest-paid player in the league before taking a single snap. Yet, Matt Ryan took it all in stride.
"Obviously it's a very big contract, and I'm excited about that. There's a lot of work, and I need to go earn everything that's been set out, and that's what I'm going to try and do now," he said about his new paycheck.
Privately, in one of his first attempts to win over his new teammates, he installed a new stereo system in the locker room, on his own dime.
With success, though he'd had no on-field success in the professional ranks, comes great responsibility. Ryan immediately set to work to earn what he'd been given.
Understanding quickly that the NFL is a different world from the college ranks, he experienced his ups and downs as he progressed through the preseason. He faced first-teamers on two of the league's toughest defenses, Tennessee and Jacksonville, and emerged as the eminent starter following the Falcons' first preseason win in its third try.
Playing three quarters, in the third preseason game—a game often thought of as the real dress-rehearsal for the season—Ryan finished 15-21 for 102 yards and a touchdown.
After that touchdown pass against the Titans, Ryan showed a routine Falcons fans hope to see many times. He triumphantly ran to the sidelines to a sea of high-fives from teammates and coaches.
And then it happened. The team's three other quarterbacks surrounded the rookie, congratulating him, and seemed to telepathically submit to Coach Smith their resignations for the starter of this football team.
The clarity that Smith said he was searching for all preseason to aid him in naming the starting quarterback presented itself.
Two days later, it was finalized. Ryan was named the starter. "We feel that Matt gives us the best opportunity not only against Detroit but in the long run," Smith said about the announcement. "We owe it to the guy and to our football team to make sure the best player is out there."
Ryan, who in the offseason studied Peyton Manning and Tom Brady's body language and quotability, did his best impression. "Anything you get in this game is earned, whether it be a touchdown, a win, whatever it is you earn it in this game.
"In some sense it is satisfying in that light. But trust me, there's a lot of work ahead...There's going to be some ups and downs. You've got to try and stay mentally tough and try and grind through it...and take care of all the things you can control.
"Those things are making sure your preparation is perfect every week, that you're doing all the work you can to be prepared for a game."
Other teammates weighed in on the decision. Veteran wide receiver Brian Finneran said, "We're ready for him to be that guy." His starting center, Todd McClure added, "I think it's a good move."
However, history shows that the NFL is not kind to rookie quarterbacks and their ability to have an impact for their teams.
Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger are the few exceptions. In both instances, these rookies stepped into teams with experience all around them. In his rookie season, Marino led the Dolphins to the playoffs and was named to the Pro Bowl.
Roethlisberger, breaking Marino's records for rookie completion percentage (66.4) and passer-rating (98.1), led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game.
Other eventual Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks did not fare so well playing in their first season:
- Peyton Manning won only three games as a rookie and threw 28 interceptions.
- Eli Manning went 1-6, completing only 48.2 percent of his passes.
- John Elway threw 14 picks as a rookie, finishing 4-6 as a starter.
- Troy Aikman lost all 11 games he started, throwing nine touchdowns along with 18 interceptions.
Despite the historical odds stacked against him, Ryan has shown an affinity towards learning on the fly. In short, he pays attention to what happens around him.
One lesson was taught at the hand of his young wide receiver, Roddy White, a player on whom Ryan has relied heavily. During training camp, tired of having balls thrown behind him, White returned to the huddle giving Ryan an earful.
The rookie was no longer in college and professional receivers have the speed to get to the ball. White reminded him to get the throws out quicker and with less air under it.
"I've gotten better in understanding the offense, getting familiar with what we're trying to do as a team...Take mental pictures of what coverages look like and what certain players do in different situations," Ryan said of his learning curve.
Musgrave reiterated his ability to learn from his mistakes. "When it comes to mistakes, he's not a repeat offender."
Ryan impressed early, throwing a 62-yard touchdown, on his first pass in his first regular season start.
Never one to take credit for much, Ryan said, "It was a play we have worked on in practice the entire week...Michael did a great job with the route and finding the end zone. He was able to outrun everybody. It's great to have players of his caliber that can run with the ball and make those types of plays. He makes my position a lot of fun. It was a good start for all of us."
Running back Michael Turner affirmed the rookie's command of the huddle, "He didn't seem like a rookie out there today. He took control of the huddle...He was being a real drill sergeant out there, letting everybody know that he was in control."
But Ryan's early success has not come without struggles. The Falcons, through six weeks, have found themselves inside the red zone 20 times, coming away with only eight touchdowns. The field grows smaller in that cramped space and Atlanta has had trouble finishing drives.
"As you get closer to the five and 10, the throws that you have to make, are much tighter," Coach Smith said. "The decisions you have to make, in terms of 'Am I going to check to a pass, am I going to run the football?'—they get a little bit tougher because it's really hard to see what the defenses are presenting. That's something that's very difficult for a young quarterback to see."
As the season has progressed, the Falcons' leadership has been more comfortable, loosening the reigns on their young quarterback, implementing a no-huddle offense in their fourth game of the season.
The field vision and football judgement of Ryan is evident in this style of offense. Ryan is being given the freedom to carry 10-12 plays to the line of scrimmage, read the defense, and call the right play. His playbook knowledge and film study have given him the comfort to run an offense made popular, and used to success, by Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills in the early '90's.
"We come up (to the line of scrimmage) with an open mind...We take a look at what they are going to do and then try to get us in a play, whether it'll be a run or pass, and the best situation for that down and distance," Ryan says about the hurry-up offense that has kept opposing defenses off-balance against the Falcons.
This two-minute drill offense was most effective in the sixth game of the season, against the Bears. No longer just an offense to make defenses play erratically, it was needed in an actual two-minute situation.
Clearly the Falcons' offense were prepared for their end-game situation, as Ryan connected on a 26-yard pass to get the Falcons within distance of a field-goal. With one second remaining, Jason Elam hit the three-pointer and the Falcons pulled off an uncharacteristic come-from-behind win.
That win was the first in what Falcons' fans hope to be many game-changing performances from Matt Ryan. Yet, he seems to have a unique idea of what it means to be a quarterback.
In his comments about his play, it appears that he views himself as more of a catalyst rather than a playmaker. But, his big-play capability is evident with plays like the pass to Jenkins against the Bears, his first career touchdown pass in the Detroit game, and an impressive 70-yard TD pass in a win over the Chiefs.
Despite the young Ryan's opinions of himself, his on-field demeanor and approach to the game speaks for itself. This guy's a leader, always has been, and as far as anyone surrounding him can see, always will be.
"Matt has got 'it'" Smith says. "We say that he's got 'it.' We don't know what 'it' is, but he's got 'it.' The team has really taken to Matt. He knows how to be a leader."
Coach Smith speaks often about process. The process of practicing, the process of study, the process of in-game adaptation. Ryan understands this process and hopes to continue to shorten the angle of the learning curve this season for himself and this young team.
"It's just been about just trying to stay consistent," he says. "Not to really get blown away by anything or carried away with anything."
It's safe to say that if this blossoming leader continues his process of progress, the Atlanta fans will have much to get carried away with as the Falcons ascension up the rankings of the elite teams continues for years to come.
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