NFL

Ryan, Freeman mature beyond their years

Josh Freeman shares his thoughts in an exclusive interview.
Josh Freeman shares his thoughts in an exclusive interview.
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Laura Okmin

Laura Okmin has more than 15 years of experience working for FOX Sports, FSN, CNN Sports and Westwood One Radio. Laura created 'PROfiles', a show profiling NFL personalities off the field, where viewers can see athletes in a completely different light, not limited to 20 second sound bites.

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ALL ACCESS: A lot of networks do TV interviews, but have you ever wanted to know the juicy details that never make air? You can tell a lot about who people really are when the cameras aren’t rolling. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at two young quarterback stars in the NFC South.

Working the sidelines gives you a terrific vantage point to watch a game you're covering, as well as what can be more interesting at times — the game within the game.

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A player's demeanor on the sideline can be extremely telling. I worked the Falcons-Buccaneers game in Week 13, which was a great game but an even greater glimpse into two young-up-and-coming star quarterbacks. Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman may be very different in their style of play, but they are extremely similar in their style. Period.

The Bucs have made sure to tell Freeman not to compare himself to his quarterback peers. As tempting as it would be for the second-year quarterback to gauge his development against contemporaries such as the LionsMatthew Stafford or the JetsMark Sanchez, they told him to shoot higher.

As in Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees higher. But the team did tell Freeman if there was one young quarterback to watch, it would be Ryan.

Interesting, because after spending time with both this past weekend, it's uncanny how the same words are thrown around when teammates describe them.

"Wise beyond their years’’... "incredible poise" ... "character" ... and "unflappable leader."

Not bad for the 25-year old Ryan and Freeman, 22.

Besides those traits, there's another critical point the two young guns have in common: Their teams have bought in.

They have become the unquestioned leaders of their huddles and their locker rooms. Not something easy to do for a 20-something kid, which is something two future Hall of Famers — Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber — reminded me as they glossed over their quarterbacks’ arms to get to the body part that both of them admire most: the shoulders that have carried their respective teams at such a young age.

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In order for this to happen, Ryan and Freeman not only needed to have the right character, but they also had to have the right locker room.

I recently talked with Giants quarterback Eli Manning about his maturation as a leader, and he said it's no different from anyone else's job. When you come in as the "new guy," most people would be hesitant to insert themselves as a leader right away, especially if you had co-workers with strong personalities.

Eli said he was extremely cautious to speak up, and speak over, vocal leaders such as Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber until he had proven himself -- not just to his team, but to himself.

For Ryan and Freeman, they walked into locker rooms that were craving strong leaders. They weren't asked to transform a team on the field, but off of it as well.

On the heels of Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick, the Falcons were desperate to fill a leadership void. Meanwhile, the Bucs’ drafting of Freeman wasn't just being questioned by outsiders, but inside the team’s own locker room.

Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said he heard his own players questioning whether the Bucs "had reached again," saying, "Here we go, another quarterback."

But unlike so many of the first-round picks these days, both of these quarterbacks were not handed the keys to the car when they walked in the door.

In 2008, Ryan was listed as third on the depth chart and earned the job with his performance and work ethic during camp. In 2009, Freeman also came in as No. 3, watching Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson play in front of him for half the season. Their teams watched them work hard on the field and off, earning the respect of the locker room, not expecting it because of where they were drafted and how much money they made.

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Their work ethic is something else these two quarterbacks have in common.

Their coaches rave about their insatiable appetite for watching film. Dominik told me one of the things that impressed him most about the quarterback of his NFC South rival was hearing that the day after the Falcons lost in the playoffs, coach Mike Smith showed up at the team's facility to find Ryan watching game tape.

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff told me they literally kicked Ryan out of the facility during the offseason so he could take a break and get away.

This past offseason, the Bucs also shipped Freeman away from the facility, sending him to San Diego to spend some time with Brees. Brees has a great relationship with his former position coach at Purdue, Greg Olson, who is now Freeman’s offensive coordinator.

Olson assured Brees they didn't want him to give away any secrets — just show Freeman what it takes to be an NFL quarterback off the field.

Freeman told me he couldn't soak in enough, studying how Brees worked out, ate and scheduled his time. He said it was invaluable. They may be rivals, but quarterbacks have a pretty special club-within-the-club. They root for the good guys to succeed.

Freeman and Ryan both spent this offseason breaking down the quarterbacks at the next level. Studying Brees, Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, who, like Brees has done with Freeman, has taken Ryan under his wing.

Rodgers and Ryan have become great friends after getting to know each other at golf tournaments and charity events. I asked each of them separately what is it about the other that they like best and they both had the same exact answer: "His character."

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I have to say, after spending time with both Ryan and Freeman during their short time in the league, that's something else they share.

While it's great to have poise off the field, the two also are showing they have it where it truly counts — on the field, especially in the fourth quarter.

Ryan continues to build the "Matty Ice" legacy with Atlanta’s Week 13 win over Tampa Bay, his sixth come-from-behind win this season and 13th of his short career.

Freeman may not have a nickname yet, but he's proving to be just as cool with his own flair for the dramatic. He has six come-from-behind wins, four this year.

You want to get big smiles out of offensive players from the Bucs or Falcons? Ask them how much they love to watch their quarterbacks work the fourth quarter, and what it means to the confidence of an entire offense knowing you have them to help drive the length of the field with a minute left in the game.

And, more important, knowing your guy can get it done.

Although the two have so many similar traits, the organizations handled their growth very differently.

Dimitroff says the Falcons’ philosophy was to set Ryan up to succeed. For his first two seasons they worked on his short and intermediate game. This season, they have taken off the training wheels and have opened up the offense, something that guys who catch the passes — Roddy White and Gonzalez — are loving.

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As for Freeman, the Bucs say they haven't held anything back, which would be awfully hard given his size and arm strength. Olson says Tampa's goal is to keep Freeman stimulated. The Buccaneers continue to give him more and more every week, as long as he proves he can handle it.

Olson will say to him, "Show me you can handle this blitz during the week, and we'll keep it in."

He says they overload and challenge Freeman because they don’t want him getting too comfortable. Why? Because the life of an NFL quarterback never is.

Something else these two young signal callers have in common is how rivals talk about them.

After raving about Ryan, Dominik paused and deadpanned, "I’m just so excited he's in the NFC South." We both laughed, but then Dominik turned serious, saying. “Actually, it's great for the division.”

As competitive as the NFC South is, teams tend to feel slighted when it comes to their NFC East brethren, especially when it comes to media and respect.

As Dominik pointed out, in a quarterback-driven league, the NFC South now has Brees, Ryan, Freeman and the Panthers may get the top pick in next year’s draft.

These young quarterbacks may do more than just boost their team's win-loss records. That's great for the division. And, I can assure you, that's also great for the league.

Tagged: Falcons, Giants, Jets, Buccaneers, Tony Gonzalez, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Josh Johnson, Josh Freeman

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