Love affair for Falcons' Ryan is growing

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

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SAN FRANCISCO – I showed up in San Francisco on Sunday morning with a major man-crush on Matt Ryan(notes).

By midway through the third quarter of Sunday's game at Candlestick Park, I was ready to take the Atlanta Falcons quarterback up to Gavin Newsom's box on the west side of the stadium and ask the San Francisco mayor to marry us.

No, I'm not being literal (not that there's anything wrong with that). But I do think Ryan is an awesome football player, and his stellar effort in the Falcons' 45-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers bolstered my conviction that the second-year passer is on his way to being the best in the business.

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Ryan kept the offense clicking during an easy win vs. the 49ers.
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In completing 22 of 32 passes for a career-high 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns against a defense that had been ranked fifth in the NFL coming into the game, Ryan showcased his tremendous skill set while looking far more comfortable than a 24-year-old quarterback should have a right to be.

You know the basics about Ryan, last season's NFL offensive rookie of the year: He's the freakishly prepared first-round draft pick who stepped into an immediate starting role, helped transform his team into an instant contender and managed to conceal his growing pains with consistently poised performances.

Now, after just 21 career starts, Ryan stands on the brink of superstardom. Last year, he took the Falcons to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. When he does the things he did against the Niners (3-2) on Sunday, it's hard not to wonder how far he's capable of taking the Falcons (3-1) in '09 and beyond.

Could Ryan already be good enough to guide this young team to the Super Bowl?

"He'd better be," said tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes), the 33-year-old future Hall of Famer who came to the Falcons in an offseason trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. "That's one of the reasons I was so happy to be traded here, because I think he's ready. He's definitely the leader of this team, and it all stems from hard work and intense preparation. He does so much studying before every game that when he's out there, trust me, he's not nervous in the least."

I'm not going to say I was nervous when I talked to Ryan after the game – after hanging with the Joe Montana-John Elway-Dan Marino Holy Trinity earlier in my career, I became immune to all that – but I do foresee a day when he'll be one of those larger-than-life icons.

Yep, I think he's that good, and getting better. Let's imagine that I had to win a playoff game tomorrow, and I could have anyone in the world quarterbacking my team. Here's a list of current players I'd choose ahead of Ryan: Tom Brady(notes), Peyton Manning(notes), Ben Roethlisberger(notes), Kurt Warner(notes), Donovan McNabb(notes), Carson Palmer(notes), Eli Manning(notes), Philip Rivers(notes) and Drew Brees(notes).

OK, now let's suppose that I were in charge of starting a franchise and could pick any quarterback around which to build it. The list of guys I'd pick over Ryan includes … um … well … uh … nobody.

Why am I so high on the kid? Partly, it's because every time I see him in person, he transcends his numbers and highlight reel and puts balls in places that don't seem possible. To put it another way: What he does looks way more impressive in three dimensions.

More than that, though, I love the way the third overall pick in the '08 draft does the boring things – works his butt off, approaches his job in a professional manner, carries himself like one of the guys – without thinking it's in any way extraordinary.

"That was kind of my focus from the start – to come in and work hard to be part of a team, to do what it takes to win on the field and in the locker room," Ryan said after Sunday's game. "It's nothing different than what I've done in high school or college. It takes time, but that's what you've got to do."

It sounds so obvious, you'd think that everyone in Ryan's position would adopt the same approach. But so many presumed franchise quarterbacks in recent years (Matt Leinart(notes), Vince Young(notes), JaMarcus Russell(notes)) have seemed far more entitled and less dedicated to their craft.

Only Russell is currently starting, and it's painful to watch. Drafted first overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, Russell has had well-documented struggles with immaturity. It's not just a media issue, either.

"On a scale of 1-to-10 in terms of work ethic, I hear [Russell]'s like a 3," Gonzalez said. "You hear rumors [from other players] about some of these young guys who don't get it at all, and I've been around quarterbacks like that. Matt's a 10, which is what you've got to be to be a franchise quarterback. At Pro Bowls over the years, I've talked to Peyton a lot about this, and that's the key to being great – a willingness to be prepared at the highest level."

There are numerous examples of Ryan's will in this regard, one of which Gonzalez noticed immediately during offseason practices.

"While the defense is working, usually offensive guys just stand there and watch," Gonzalez said. "He'll come over to me and say, 'Hey, let's [go work on] a corner or a 'dip' route,' and we'll go throw on the side. That's what I've liked to do for a long time, and it's great. To have your starting quarterback want to throw balls to you during dead periods, that's amazing."

Ryan produced his share of amazing moments Sunday, including an oh-no-he-didn't 24-yard pass to wideout Roddy White(notes) (eight catches for a franchise-record 210 yards and two TDs) – with Niners safety Dashon Goldson(notes) completely obscuring the quarterback's throwing window – to set up Atlanta's fifth touchdown late in the first half.

Yet there were also times when Ryan's teammates were reminded that he's still a relative novice.

"At one point in the third quarter he was yelling at us because he thought we weren't lined up right, and he had to call a timeout," White recalled. "He can be really loud and aggressive – he doesn't give y'all that side of him, but it's there – and he was all over us. But he had called the wrong play! We told him, 'Uh, you called 'Choice,' not 'Chief.' And he was like, 'Oh.' "

Confirmed Ryan, laughing: "Yeah, that was on me. It was, 'Wait a minute – my bad.' "

Even worse was Ryan's decision to try to spike the ball after sneaking to the right pylon for a one-yard touchdown run with 8:20 remaining and victory long since assured.

"We killed him on the sidelines for that," backup quarterback Chris Redman(notes) said. "We said, 'Matt, you don't want to spike the ball when you're up by 30.' Plus, it was one of the ugliest spikes ever. He went up with the ball and sort of missed the hard spike, and it just kind of squirted out."

Ryan's defense? "I've never spiked a football before," he said. "Never. I probably should've practiced it once or twice before I busted it out in a game."

A few seconds later, I thanked the future superstar for his time and watched him walk outside Candlestick to the players' parking lot. He was wearing a blue-and-white striped button-up shirt, a pair of baggy, gray sweats and some old-school Nikes – a tough combination to pull off.

From my vantage point, of course, he looked just dreamy.

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

Another week, another dramatic ending for the Cincinnati Bengals, who won at Baltimore, 17-14, on Carson Palmer's 20-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell(notes) with 22 seconds remaining. This victory was drenched with emotion – the team presented a game ball to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who coached on Sunday despite the sudden death of his wife, Vikki, three days earlier from unknown causes. Zimmer's players surely felt a surge of intensity on his behalf, but the truth is Cincy's defense has been performing at a high level all season, which is one reason the Bengals (4-1) are in first place in the AFC North, with only a fluke finish in the opener separating them from a perfect record. What they're doing is completely legit, as evidenced by halfback Cedric Benson's(notes) 27-carry, 120-yard rushing performance – the first time in 40 games anyone has run for 100 or more yards against the Ravens' defense. As I wrote in August, Benson is one of many Bengals who is taking advantage of an opportunity to reinvent himself. For that reason, I think they're unlikely to get caught up in their early success. "Gotta keep it rollin'," Benson said Sunday night via text-message. With consecutive home games against the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears leading into a bye week (after which the Ravens come to town), Cincinnati has an excellent chance to do so.

Is it too early for MVP talk? Of course it is – but I'm going to throw out some candidates after five weeks nonetheless. The obvious leader so far is Peyton Manning, who had another command performance in Indy's 31-9 thrashing of the Titans. That would make him the first player to win the award four times, and come to think of it, after his incredible game-winning touchdown pass against the 49ers and the subsequent A-plus effort against his former team, Brett Favre(notes) is also in position to make a run at that distinction. Drew Brees is the third guy in the conversation, and I have a feeling he'll stay in the conversation as it becomes a lot more relevant. Oh, and since we're being shamelessly premature, let's go ahead and say that Vikings defensive end Jared Allen(notes) is the front-runner for defensive player of the year, and Denver's Josh McDaniels has the inside track for coach of the year.

Three teams are feeling much, much better about themselves thanks to fantastic finishes, as well they should: The Broncos, who rallied from a 17-7 deficit against the Patriots and scored a 20-17 overtime victory; the Cardinals, who blew a 21-0 lead before relying on their defense to pull out a 28-21 triumph over the Texans; and the Cowboys, who may have found a No. 1 receiver in defeating the Chiefs in overtime by a 26-20 score. Let's go in reverse order. With Roy Williams sidelined by injury, Miles Austin(notes) stepped up as Tony Romo's(notes) primary target, catching 10 passes for 250 yards (breaking Bob Hayes' franchise record of 246) and two touchdowns, including the 60-yard game-winner. As Dallas (3-2) tries to catch the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, it may be time to face reality: Williams, who's being paid like a No. 1 receiver, is really a classic No. 2; this is Austin's chance to step into the No. 1 role. The Cardinals, for a change, got it done down the stretch with 'D,' as cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) got the go-ahead score on a 49-yard interception return for touchdown and the Cards completed a goal-line stand by stopping the Texans' Chris Brown inches from the end zone with 40 seconds remaining. "I'll take it anytime!" said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt (via text), whose 2-2 team trails the Niners by half a game in the NFC West. As for the Broncos, now 5-0 and even more surreal than they were when I visited last weekend – well, I have just one word to describe what's happening in Denver, and I'll leave it for Wallace Shawn: inconceivable.

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

Tom Cable may soon have to deal with bigger issues than his poor performance as the Oakland Raiders' coach, as my article on exiled assistant Randy Hanson suggests. As he waits to learn his legal fate, Cable sure is doing a smash-up job of getting his team ready to play. On Sunday at Giants Stadium, the Raiders trailed the New York Giants 28-0 before they had recorded a first down. (They eventually lost 44-7, gaining just 124 total yards.) And I thought Eli Manning was the one who wasn't supposed to be able to lift his foot off the ground. Ouch.

If Cable, pending a possible arrest and/or NFL suspension, is a leading candidate to be the first coach fired this season – yes, Al, with cause, which is just the way you like it – he's absolutely not alone. Jim Zorn's hold on the Redskins job is even shakier after a 20-17 defeat to the Carolina Panthers in which Washington (2-3) squandered a 17-2 lead and had just 198 total yards. And following the Bills' 6-3 loss to the Browns (one word to describe that game: ecchhhhh) that dropped them to 1-4, Dick Jauron moved closer to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, at least in a figurative sense. Asked about Jauron's job status, chief operating officer/general manager Russ Brandon told reporters, "I'm not going to comment on that. Obviously this is a low point for all of us. … This is not where we expected to be right now." I'm curious what Jauron expected when, despite public criticism of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert by owner Ralph Wilson at the end of the '08 season, Jauron decided to keep Schonert on his staff … until firing him 10 days before the start of the regular season.

In general, Mike Singletary has done a terrific job in his first 14 games as an NFL head coach. Specifically, I thought he was a tad over-the-top on Sunday, most notably when the Niners coach got in touch with his inner Hall of Fame middle linebacker during an unseemly verbal spat with Falcons guard Harvey Dahl(notes). The two men began jawing at one another during a play near the 49ers' sideline in the third quarter, and Dahl and another Falcons player told me that Singletary said, "I wish I was still playing." Dahl's response? "I was like, 'Come on, then,' " he recalled after the game. "He's a fiery guy. He tries to fire them up, I guess." Singletary also managed to burn all three of his team's timeouts with 11:16 remaining in the first half, which kept him from being able to challenge a fumbled kickoff by Delanie Walker(notes) that looked like it might have been overturned if reviewed. (Three plays after the recovery, Atlanta scored to go up 28-10.) Conversely, Singletary had all three second-half timeouts saved for the game's final stages, and he used them to get the ball back with 26 seconds remaining – and a 35-point deficit. I have no problem with, in theory, instilling a we-never-quit mentality at all costs. But given that the timeouts followed a personal foul on a Falcons kneel-down by Niners linebacker Takeo Spikes(notes), I think the stronger message from coach to team would've been to let the clock run out and lecture the players on losing with class.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. Derivatives – as explained to Michael Moore(notes) in "Capitalism: A Love Story".

2. How Browns quarterback Derek Anderson(notes) could complete two of 17 passes – two of 17! – and win. In making JaMarcus Russell look like Joe Montana, Anderson put up just 23 passing yards and technically completed a third pass: the one that was intercepted by Bills safety Jairus Byrd(notes). Yet the Bills are so inept that they let Cleveland (1-4) win following a late muffed punt, even though, again, 15 balls thrown by the opposing quarterback did not end up in the hands of his intended receiver. "How the hell did they do that?" asked Spikes, a former Bills linebacker. I know, right? Presumably Anderson will start ahead of Brady Quinn(notes) in Pittsburgh next week. That makes sense because Anderson is, you know, a winner.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

OK, Dre' Bly(notes), I like you so I'm going to be gentle. Then again, it's 3 a.m. and I've had a lonnggggg week, and the kids will soon be waking me up and asking what the hell you were thinking on that interception return in the third quarter of Sunday's game at Candlestick. And I will have to tell them the truth: Dre' Bly's a good cornerback, but he's not Deion Sanders, and why he wasn't aware of that before Sunday is one of life's great mysteries. The Niners were down by 25 points when Bly stepped in front of Ryan's pass to White and picked it off at the San Francisco 9-yard line. They were desperately looking for a play to get them back into the game. What they didn't need: Bly, as he approached the 25, holding the ball out with his left hand while placing his right hand on his helmet, elbow bent, in what looked like an homage to Sanders.

I have a few problems with this. First, when Prime Time used to pull that stunt, he was virtually guaranteed to get away with it because he was insanely fast, even relative to his very fast peers. I mean, like, once-in-a-generation fast. In terms of speed, Bly's just a guy. Second, Sanders typically didn't start showboating when he was 75 yards from the end zone. Third, have I mentioned that Bly's team was getting its butt kicked at the time? Right. So what happened? Naturally, White caught up with Bly at the 40, jumped onto his back and forced a fumble the Falcons recovered, and Atlanta finished the drive with a field goal. I might have let all of this go had Bly, after the game, said something like, "I've been in the league too long [11 years] to act so foolishly. I brain-locked. My bad." Instead, I heard this: "I'm going to be me – that's who I've been. I like to have fun when I play the game. When I make plays – I've made a lot – I express myself. … Like I said, I'm going to be me. That's who I've been my whole life. That's who I was in college. I have fun. Dre' is going to be Dre'." But enough about me; what do you think of me? Dre' is going to be Dre'? Got it. And in this case, Dre' was going to be played. Oh, and it gets worse: During his game-winning interception for the Cardinals, Rodgers-Cromartie, who has a gear that Bly doesn't, performed a successful Sanders tribute by high-stepping the final 20 yards. The only question is, should I call Keyshawn Johnson(notes) on Monday morning to hear him say, "Come on, man!" directly, or should I just wait for Monday Night Countdown?

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"It's about time they give me chance 2 make some plays."
– Text Sunday evening from Seattle Seahawks receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) after his five-catch, 77-yard, two-TD effort in a 41-0 thrashing of the Jaguars

"5-0. Are you [expletive] kidding me? I think the world is coming to an end. That was just plain ridiculous."
– Text Sunday evening from my buddy Jeff Minor, a devoted and elated (and formerly skeptical) Broncos fan

"We won't drink the kool aid!!!!"
– Text Sunday evening from Broncos defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday(notes), resisting the hype that will intensify after Sunday's victory over the New England Patriots