FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Grizzled, long-time NFL coaching veterans shepherded Matt Ryan’s entry into the NFL.
In quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, he had someone who played the position in the league behind greats such as Joe Montana and Steve Young and then coached it.
When Musgrave left after Ryan’s first three seasons to become offensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, the Falcons replaced him with Bob Bratkowski, who had served as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator for 10 seasons.
But entering this season, when the Falcons were forced to fill the vacancy for the third time in three seasons – Bratkowski left with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who was hired as Jacksonville’s head coach – the Falcons went to Glenn Thomas, the team’s former offensive quality control coach who is only about seven years Ryan’s elder and might be fresher-faced.
In essence, the move was a reflection that Ryan is smart and hard-working enough that he doesn’t need his hand held anymore.
“Matt’s maturity level is way beyond his years,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said of the 27-year-old Ryan. “He’s going into Year Five, but he’s experienced a whole lot for a fifth-year quarterback in terms of number of games he’s started, in terms of number of games he’s played…
“I think Matt’s voice will be a little bit stronger in Year Five than it was in Year One, of course. He has a very good comfort level of what the NFL game is all about. I think what he’s done in his first four years speaks volumes about his cerebral thinking of how you play the game as a quarterback. He doesn’t make many mistakes. His quarterback rating is extremely high (88.4 over his career), he understands coverages. We’re excited about what Matt’s done in his first four years and we just think he’s going to get better and better.”
Since becoming the Falcons’ starter in 2008, Ryan has represented something of a lightning rod for fans, in part because he supplanted Michael Vick in that role. But after Smith, Ryan may face the most blame among fans and media for the team’s failure to win a playoff game in each of its three tries over the last four seasons. As he enters 2012 with that stronger voice and as more of a leader than ever, he does so with the focus on his postseason shortcomings but also with his trademark calm demeanor – the one that earned him the nickname “Matty Ice.”
“He was always calm, but he’s more calm now,” said wide receiver Harry Douglas, who joined the Falcons the same season as Ryan did. “He’s always been a smart guy, but he’s even smarter. He watches even more film. He does all the little things right and that brings the tendencies of a great quarterback.”
On Monday, new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the team believes Ryan is a top-10 quarterback – and he was a Pro-Bowler in 2010 when the team went 13-3 – but NFL players might not feel the same. In the NFL Network’s list of the league’s top 100 players, which was compiled through a poll of players, Ryan is absent from the list, but 13 other quarterbacks made it.
These are the sort of things that Ryan hardly would spend a nanosecond to ponder. On Monday, he was asked about the team’s schedule, which is loaded with top quarterbacks – Peyton and Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Cam Newton (No. 40 on the NFL Network list), Philip Rivers, Vick, Tony Romo and Matt Stafford, a Pro Bowler last season – but he said that’s nothing new.
“That’s the NFL,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of good quarterbacks in this league and we’re going to play some good ones this year. For me, I don’t worry about it too much. As a quarterback, you’re going against a defense, you’re not really going against the other guy, but I got a lot of confidence in our defense and whenever we roll around to the regular season games, I’m sure we’ll be ready.”
Asked if he would use those games as motivation, Ryan demurred, maintaining his focus on the task at hand.
“I think that challenge is every day,” he said. “You want to improve, you want to get better every day. You want to be improving, you want to be the best you can really be. That’s the only thing I worry about.”
Smith pointed out that Ryan is humble and that’s evident in how he does not need to compare himself to his peers – like, say, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco has done. If he does have insecurities – which you’d never know by interviewing him – then he channels them in a positive way.
“Matt’s his own worst critic, not only on his speed and on his athleticism but on his arm strength and everything he does and I think that’s something it’s a positive because it drives him to be better and better every time he steps out on the field,” Smith said.
That’s why Ryan has so many admirers among the former NFL quarterbacks who dominate the league’s ranks of commentators, even if NFL players might not feel the same way.
But the only way Ryan will change perceptions about himself is by breaking that playoff hex.