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Falcons' Ryan embraces leadership role

The SportsXchange

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons believe the sky is the limit for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. And that is how the team paid him.

Ryan is set to move forward in his career as the unquestioned leader of the team after signing a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension.

"He's letting the coach know what he thinks and what he sees," Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas said. "That's what you see the guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton (Manning) and Aaron Rodgers do, and they have become successful. I think Matt Ryan is on his way."

Ryan is now in their financial neighborhood as $59 million of his deal was guaranteed. Only Brees received a higher guarantee in the recent rash of quarterback signings.

Ryan ascended to the leadership role and won his teammates' respect with the gutty toughness he showed while battling through his second season in the NFL and by leading them to the playoffs in four of five seasons.

"Matt is the type of leader you want to have on your team," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I say it all the time: you win in the locker room first, and you've got to have guys like Matt Ryan that have the drive and the passion to be the best."

The Falcons needed someone to step forward and the time is right for Ryan, who's set to enter his sixth season.

Longtime center Todd McClure, who taught Ryan some of the nuances of the pro game, retired after last season.

Running back Michael Turner, around whom the offense was built to shield Ryan during his early seasons, was released.

John Abraham, the elder statesman of the defense, also was released.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez, 37, who's set to enter his 17th season in the NFL, is the most senior member on the team, but he defers to Ryan.

"What you saw out there last year, he's going to keep building on it," Gonzalez said. "I anticipate him getting even better now that the deal is done."

As a rookie, Ryan didn't come in and make waves, although he was starting. He deferred to veterans such as McClure and Abraham while learning his position at the professional level.

"It takes time (to become a leader)," Ryan said. "I think Year 3 into Year 4, those two years. My first year, as a quarterback it's different from a lot of other positions. Your first year, you are just keeping your head above water and doing the best you can."

Ryan started to earn the respect of his teammates in the sixth game of his first season when he pulled out a victory over the Chicago Bears in the final 11 seconds.

Things continued to move along just fine until he suffered a major setback in his second season. He missed two games with a gruesome turf-toe injury. He came back and played out the season with a protective steel-toe shoe.

That was his toughest season, as the Falcons finished 9-7 and did not make the playoffs.

"In your second year, you think you know what you are doing, and then you get knocked around a little bit, and you find out you don't really know what you are doing quite yet," Ryan said. "I think some of those lumps I took my second year really helped me going into my third year."

In Year 3, Ryan led the Falcons to a 13-3 record, the NFC South title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

"I felt like I started to have a better command in my third year," Ryan said. "But I feel like each year has helped me get better and better. Year 4, I was better than Year 3, and Year 5 I was much better than Year 4. Hopefully that progression continues."

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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