Falcons' Ryan driven to improve in 5th year
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On the drive out to Flowery Branch, Ga., site of the Atlanta Falcons offseason training camp, former coach Dan Reeves' voice crackled through the airwaves.
Reeves, a native Georgian who led the Falcons from 1997 to 2003, is widely considered one of the beloved professional football figures in the state. There aren't too many in Atlanta's bleak history. So when the 68-year-old coach, who served as headman during the Falcons singular run to the Super Bowl in 1998, speaks his mind, many listen. Scheduling his interview on a day like Thursday has become a foregone conclusion by now, one of the few Atlanta pro football personalities who can talk about such pertinent issues as preseason workouts and the integrating of new assistant coaches.
So as Reeves' deliberate, Southern drawl spilled out the window onto northbound I-85, the radio dial rested idly.
At the very end of the interview, he was asked the one question that the Atlanta sport-o-sphere began debating after the Falcons' playoff loss to the New York Giants in January: Can Matt Ryan become a Super Bowl quarterback? Is it in the fifth-year player to make that final leap into elite company?
With little hesitation, the answer returned, in short saying, "Absolutely."
Ryan is entering (or has already entered) into what most believe is the prime of a quarterback's career; at 27, he's accomplished more than most since becoming the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Already the Boston College product is in the discussion for the franchise's best signal-caller ever, especially coming off a season in which he set single-season passing records for total yardage and 300-yard games. The guy is 43-19 as a starter.
But, for the most part, those amount to regular season accomplishments. And therein lies the motivation behind the final question posed to Reeves because Ryan is 0-3 in the playoffs — the past two losses coming in underwhelming fashion to future Super Bowl champions. The latter incident, a 24-2 drubbing by the Giants, was enough to motivate Ryan to be the first Falcon back in the weight room this offseason. In some ways, it still lingers in the air surrounding Falcons camp.
Perhaps that's a good thing for this team.
"I think the biggest thing is when you look at the past season and leading up to this point in your career, I certainly haven't been where I need to be, haven't been as good as I think I can be," Ryan said. "I don't know any other way to improve but to work harder and try and find ways to get better, and that's something, I think, all of us have done."
So, he took "two or three weeks" off before returning to the Falcons facility. Not much of a vacation.
Matt Ryan's shortcomings have never been a product of work ethic, or lack thereof. It's there, always has been.
Perhaps that's a great thing for this team.
"When you have your quarterback in as the first guy in, I think that's a positive thing," said coach Mike Smith, who, with Ryan leading the offense, has pieced together one of the most successful coaching stints in Falcons history. "When he came in, it's funny how other guys started to trickle in."
Talks of winning and losing will always revert back to quarterback play in the National Football League; it's a passer's league, a domain where the player who matters most is the one with the ball in his hands every play. That's Ryan, and that's where the Falcons find themselves at this point. Behind him, the team has posted three postseason appearances in four years.
And yet, without a playoff victory to show for it, thoughts of age and "what-if" start creeping in.
What if tight end and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez up and retires? What if this offense, as dynamic as it can be at times with Roddy White and Julio Jones catching Ryan's passes, never puts up the necessary points when it matters most? What if — gulp — this collection of talent never culminates into the only thing that offers historic consequence at this level?
"Tony's got about five more [years] in him; Roddy's got at least ten," Ryan joked before the addressing what is quickly becoming his reality. "I think you always have to have that [win-now] approach. In the NFL, it's hard, it's a difficult league. And you have to have the approach that now is the time. If you come in any different way, you're not giving yourself a chance."
Following Reeves and subsequent media sessions with Ryan and other players, the radio station then played a giveaway contest of "Know Your Falcon's History", which came equipped with the (paraphrased) tagline saying that if you don't know your history you won't learn from it.
No one can tell at this point if there's anything for this team to learn from its recent postseason past. Score more? Well, new coordinator Dirk Koetter is in place to potentially help — "Everybody's been really impressed with how smart he is, and also how receptive he is to our input, too," Ryan said — with that side of the ball. Prevent a team from tallying 48 points on you at home? Well, defense is Smith's forte, although a few departures and injuries will pose some challenges.
Those questions can only be addressed in the present. Falcons players and their head coach appear well aware of that.
"Nothing is guaranteed. What we've done in the past is going to have no bearing on this season," Smith said.
The past two Super Bowl champions — the same ones which steamrolled through Atlanta — did not win a single postseason game in the seasons prior to their respective roads to Lombardi's Trophy. There was no prior warning, no metaphorical flares shot off into afternoon skies above their training camps. The NFL is an opportunistic league, and the ultimate way to capitalize on the opportunities given is to feature a franchise quarterback.
The Packers had one when their moment arose. The Giants had one.
The Falcons, with fingers crossed and hopes high, believe they have theirs.
Perhaps that's the best thing for this team.