IT'S HARD to say which has been more stunning this year: the performance of the 4--2 Falcons, who are tied for first in the NFC South, with as many wins in six games as they had in 16 last year, or the mockery Matt Ryan is making of the long-standing belief that starting lineups are no place for rookie quarterbacks. ¶ Ryan, the third overall pick in the 2008 draft and Atlanta's starter from the outset this year, has completed 93 of 161 passes for 1,164 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and an 82.9 passer rating. At the same time that he was throwing for a career-high 301 yards with one touchdown and no turnovers in a 22--20 victory over Chicago at the Georgia Dome, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, a fellow first-round pick and the only other rookie quarterback to start this season, was showing the difficulties of learning on the job, tossing three interceptions in a 31--3 loss in Indianapolis.
Then again, Flacco doesn't have a nickname to match the one Ryan earned in high school: Matty Ice. The Boston College product's numbers, good as they are, don't adequately reflect the composure he has demonstrated in helping restore credibility to the Falcons franchise. "I hate to compare," says Atlanta safety Lawyer Milloy, a 13-year veteran who played seven seasons with the Patriots, "but I see a lot in Matt that I saw in Tom Brady in New England, things that you really can't coach—how to manage a game, poise under pressure, presence in the pocket. Even in our losses he showed me something."
That maturity was never more evident than in the final moments of Sunday's game, after the Bears' Kyle Orton had thrown a 17-yard touchdown pass to Rashied Davis for a 20--19 lead with 11 seconds to play. Harry Douglas returned the squib kickoff 10 yards to the Atlanta 44, leaving Ryan six seconds to pull off his first fourth-quarter NFL comeback.
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey called for over-under routes to the left sideline. When Bears cornerback Marcus Hamilton bit on the underneath route taken by a running back, it left an opening for Ryan to float a perfect 26-yard pass to wideout Michael Jenkins, who caught the ball and stepped out-of-bounds with one second to play. Jason Elam then atoned for a missed 33-yard field goal try on Atlanta's previous possession by nailing a 48-yarder as time expired.
After the ball sailed through the uprights, Ryan sailed into the waiting arms of coach Mike Smith. It was the only time all day the 23-year-old betrayed his youth. "He's so far beyond his age, it's unbelievable," says backup quarterback Chris Redman, a six-year veteran. "Nobody even calls him Rook around here. You see some of the throws, some of the reads, just the anticipation, knowing how to work during the week, the leadership qualities—he's got it all."
THE PREDRAFT chatter was that the Falcons would use the No. 3 pick on LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, whom G.M. Thomas Dimitroff says was ranked at the top of the team's draft board along with Ryan. But the club chose Ryan because of his physical abilities, football intelligence and leadership skills—not to mention the club's fear that a QB with Ryan's attributes might not be available to them later in the draft, or in 2009 if they waited until then to address the need. "We really liked Dorsey [who was picked two spots later by Kansas City]," says Dimitroff, "[but] in this league you go as your quarterback goes."
The decision was not widely hailed in Atlanta, if only because Ryan is not Michael Vick. Arguably no athlete in the franchise's history was more popular than Vick, the former Virginia Tech quarterback who pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges before the 2007 season and was sent to federal prison. A win such as the one over the Bears helps the fans, and the franchise, move on. "If you'd have come here for our first preseason game," says Falcons owner Arthur Blank, "you would have seen a lot of Michael Vick jerseys. But look around today—not too many."
Of course, Ryan hasn't turned the team's fortunes around by himself. He's getting lots of help from a strong running game, led by free-agent pickup Michael Turner, that's averaging 5.0 yards a carry and 163.0 a game; an improved offensive line that's tutored by new assistant Paul Boudreau; an emerging receiving corps that includes speedster Roddy White (nine catches for 112 yards and a touchdown against the Bears); and a defense that leans heavily on established veterans such as Milloy, end John Abraham, tackle Grady Jackson and linebacker Keith Brooking.
Making it all work is another rookie of sorts: Smith, 49, the longtime assistant and first-time head coach at any level, who is known affectionately as Smitty. "He's a football guy," says Brooking. "That's not all he knows, but he's 100 percent into this thing. From the beginning he came in and treated us like professionals. He laid out his plan in front of us, and it was very simple. He wants tough, hard-nosed, smart football players who, when they pull through these gates, are going to give everything they have to be the very best."
The players have responded to Smith not only because of who he is but also who he isn't—Bobby Petrino.