Beginner's luck: Falcons leaning toward starting Ryan in Week 1
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight gleaned from a day at the Atlanta Falcons training camp last week, where all things new -- be it a head coach, a general manager, a first-round quarterback, a lead running back or a kicker -- are positively the rage....
Partly based on Matt Ryan's solid 9-of-15, 117-yard, one-touchdown showing in his NFL debut at Jacksonville on Saturday night, and partly based on the rave reviews I heard coming from Falcons decision makers, I'd be surprised if the rookie quarterback isn't Atlanta's opening-day starter against visiting Detroit.
The rebuilding Falcons could still opt to play it safe with the No. 3 overall pick and go with veteran Chris Redman as their starter for the first few weeks of the season, but I think that's becoming more of a long shot by the day. The key factor will be Atlanta's offensive line as Week 1 looms. If the Falcons feel they can properly protect Ryan, I get the sense they'll be hard-pressed to find a reason to keep him off the field.
Standing alongside new Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff during a morning practice, I heard him detail just how many things he already likes about Ryan's still-formulating NFL game. Namely, how the ex-Boston College star already has a good sense for where to go with the football on most plays, and how his command of both Atlanta's offense and the Falcons huddle has grown by leaps and bounds since the team's offseason mini-camp.
Ryan "has a nice feel for sliding around in the pocket, with the ability to feel the pressure and get away from it,'' Dimitroff told me, likening it to that trademark part of Tom Brady's game in New England, Dimitroff's former employer. "You have to like the way he stands tall in the pocket and the poise he already shows back there.''
The Falcons are also very impressed with Ryan's intelligence, quick absorption of information, and the resiliency he has already shown in dealing with the growth process of a young quarterback. They're convinced the task of starting early as a rookie won't be too big for him. Talking to Ryan for 15 minutes last week, I got the same vibe.
"It's a learning curve, and he knows that. But he has a great outlook on it,'' new Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "He's already told me, 'Coach, I want to be your quarterback from Day 1.' But right now he knows it's day to day.''
With Atlanta likely looking up at the Saints, Bucs and Panthers in the NFC South, the feeling seems to be the Falcons and Ryan will grow up together this season, and the sooner they get that process started, the better. Maybe that's why Atlanta's preseason opener at Jacksonville -- a 20-17 Jags win -- wasn't even nine minutes old Saturday night when Ryan took the field, replacing Redman.
The rookie responded well to a lot of different looks from the Jaguars, who had most of their talented first-team defense on the field against him. His nine completions were to six receivers -- always a sign a young QB is reading the field well -- and Falcons veterans were especially impressed with the 11-play, 74-yard, 5:46 scoring drive that culminated in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to receiver Roddy White. At one point, Ryan completed seven-of-eight passes over the course of his second and third drives, and he was 9-of-13 after starting with two incompletions.
"Whatever it is, I just want to keep knocking out those firsts,'' Ryan told me last week. "The first practice, the first scrimmage, the first preseason game. Keep knocking them out, so you've got more experience under your belt.''
Ryan got his first touchdown pass out of the way with the second-quarter toss to White, and he even got his career's first significant souvenir, scooping up the ball he threw for the score after White left it on the field. I'm guessing he knocks another first off his list this week, when the Falcons may start him in their preseason home opener against the Colts on Saturday night. If he has another strong showing in that one, the start-Ryan-from-Day-1 express is only going to pick up steam.
The best thing I see and hear about Ryan is he knows he can only buy himself credibility among his teammates by producing on the field. He can't talk his way into becoming the centerpiece of the Falcons' franchise. He has to first perform, and then that mantle gets bestowed. He gets that. Surprisingly, not every rookie first-round quarterback does (think early Matt Leinart in Arizona).
"I think I've gotten a lot better, and the good thing about it is it's kind of been a consistent curve,'' Ryan said of his first three-months-plus as a Falcon. "The biggest thing for me is to get in here and learn and pull my weight on the field, in order to gain my teammates' respect. That takes time. That kind of stuff doesn't happen overnight. You can't come in and say, 'Hey, I'm going to work hard.' It's about coming in and keeping your head down and letting your actions speak louder than your words, and that's what I've been trying to do.''
Ryan's actions have begun to do the talking. And they're saying he's headed for the starting lineup maybe than anyone first imagined.
Wow, what a difference a year can make. Last summer about now, I visited the Falcons' Michael Vick-less and Bobby Petrino-led training camp and came away with the sense there was a combustible mix in place that was roughly the football equivalent of the Hindenburg's launching of its maiden voyage. And things went boom all right, with the capper coming when Petrino did that disgusting "Woo, Pig Sooey!'' cheer at the press conference announcing his hiring as the Arkansas' head coach.
But this year's trip to Flowery Branch felt completely different, as if a sense of sanity has returned to Atlanta's spacious team complex. As mentioned earlier, there's new in every direction you look. Has an NFL ever broken in a new general manager (Thomas Dimitroff), a new head coach (Mike Smith), a new franchise quarterback (Ryan), a new lead running back (Michael Turner) and a new kicker (Jason Elam) all in the same season? And let's not forget that Dimitroff notes the Falcons have turned over more than 50 percent of their roster.