FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Matt Ryan is a year away from turning 30. He still looks young, but not as fresh-faced as the No. 3 overall draft pick once appeared as an NFL rookie (2008).
Perhaps the toll of seven years’ worth of Organized Team Activities and training camps in the hot Georgia sun — along with 168 sacks, regular season and playoffs combined — has slightly begun to weather him, similar to how Brett Favre and John Elway changed over decades.
Ryan has started to feel the change himself. He laughed when asked if he feels like a grizzled veteran.
"Some days, some days," he said. "But I still feel young. I still feel really good. My body feels great. I feel like I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been. I still love getting out and practicing and doing all the same stuff.
"Seven years go by fast, but I feel really good."
There are times when he has looked around the Falcons’ weight room and was jolted by the abundance of youth. By rule, the players with the most seniority can exert control over the music that plays therein, and Ryan has begun to exercise his power in the weight room.
"In my life, I’ve never had the opportunity to choose the music," he said. "This offseason has probably been the first time where I look around and I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve got four more years here than everybody else. What’s going on?’
"It’s been a little bit different. Certainly, when you look around and you see guys who have been here the entire time with you, it’s been less and less, but I’m excited about the young guys coming in. I think competition always pushes everybody. It’s crazy to see guys born in the 1990s that you’re playing with now, which is weird, but there’s a lot of them."
As for Ryan’s musical choices? He’s guarded with an answer, as if he were queried about the Falcons’ game plan on a particular Sunday. He simply relies upon wide receiver Harry Douglas to act as his muscle.
"Man, I usually leave it up to Harry," he said. "Harry and I are the same year, so you got to grill Harry for what we put on; but I’ll tell him what to turn off — I know that much."
In the young man’s game that is the NFL, 11 of the 90 players currently on the Falcons roster have logged more NFL seasons than Ryan. Only three — Jonathan Babineaux, Justin Blalock and Roddy White — have been with the Falcons for longer.
It’s enough to make silver-haired head coach Mike Smith feel that rapid passage of time, as well. Smith acknowledged his quarterback’s relative age makes him feel old.
"Yeah, it does, it does," he said. "This gray hair makes me feel older but, yeah, to say it’s been like" — he snaps his fingers three times — "that … Matt was our first draft pick. He’s obviously been our leader from the first game that he has played."
With age, as they say, comes wisdom and that might be Ryan’s greatest asset.
"I think he’s like a coach on the field," Smith said. "He has a very good understanding of our offense. He has very good understanding of no-huddle. That, to me, is very important because you’ve got to get to the line of scrimmage, see what the defense is showing you and have the cat-and-mouse game with the defense in terms of what they’re presenting."
"… I think Matt is probably one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in all the league."
Last year, amidst injuries to star players (Julio Jones, Steven Jackson, Sam Baker) and porous production from the offensive line, much was put on Ryan’s shoulders.
Too often, opposing defenses put Ryan on his back. The nine times the Carolina Panthers sacked the franchise quarterback with the $100 million contract in the season finale left a mark — both on Ryan physically and the organization philosophically.
Almost immediately, the Falcons began to beef up their offensive and defensive lines. The day after the season ended, they fired offensive line coach Pat Hill and his assistant, Paul Dunn.
To fill those jobs, the club brought in Mike Tice and Wade Harman (Tice’s assistant). They have gotten bigger and have vowed to get tougher. They expended the No. 6 overall pick in the draft on a tackle, Jake Matthews, and signed Jon Asamoah (formerly of the Chiefs) to play right guard on the first day of free agency.
For those who thought the Falcons would attempt to trade up and take a potentially dominant defensive end like Jadeveon Clowney, or select an O-lineman to help keep Ryan upright — even an improved running game will help to protect the quarterback, who had a laughable 61 attempts in a loss to Arizona last year — the answer, in retrospect, is head-smackingly obvious.
The organization had to protect its investment in its most important player.
To listen to Ryan describe Matthews, at times, it’s as if he’s discussing a younger version of himself.
"Every rookie when you come in, you have a lot thrown at you and they’re kind of swimming out there," Ryan said.
"Certainly, he has a ways to go in terms of learning the playbook but everybody does when you’re at that stage. When you watch him, when he knows what he’s doing, he’s incredibly athletic, he’s got great feet. He’s stout, he’s strong. He’s quiet — which you’ve got to love from a young guy.
"He just goes to work, does what he’s supposed to do. I think there’s a real maturity to him so I’m excited about it. I think he fits in well with our guys, and I think he’s going to be productive for us for a long time."
While the Falcons’ struggles, no doubt, were a product of the mess around him — the failing defense, for example, meant the offense played from behind far too often — Ryan took, and merited, his share of blame for the 4-12 campaign.
When the season came off the rails with five straight losses to Arizona, Carolina, Seattle, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, Ryab threw five touchdowns to nine interceptions. That short-term ratio is the reverse of his career mark — 153 touchdowns/77 interceptions.
As a result, Ryan has his own incentive to improve. Every year in the offseason, he tends to concentrate on a specific aspect of his game. Sometimes it’s footwork. Sometimes it’s strength. Sometimes it’s watching video of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
That has been the case again this spring. When Ryan talks, he usually does it in terms of we and not I.
"Like every year, it’s finding ways to get better individually during the offseason and trying to improve," he said. "So that if you’re a better player, I feel like that makes our team better. So, I’ve tried to be as detailed as possibly can be, both in the weight room and in the film room, and out on the practice field. I think it’s overall consistency."
As much as the offensive line proved a fatal flaw last season, the Falcons could have mitigated that, to a degree, were it not for injuries. Left tackle Sam Baker played just three games.
Ryan described a bulked-up Baker as "flying around" during OTAs.
He also spoke optimistically about wide receivers Julio Jones (foot injury), who has yet to participate in team sessions, and Roddy White, who was limited for most of last season by an ankle injury.
"I think if we can keep them on the field," Ryan said. "It’s going to bode well for us."
Last season brought Ryan the humility of his first losing season, the likes of which he had never witnessed in his NFL career. The hope is that he, another year older, and the rest of his teammates will learn from the experience."