FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Matt Ryan was going the wrong way.
Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff's eyes still go wide when he talks about it: Seeing his franchise quarterback running, watching Ryan leap and surrender his body to cruel momentum, flipping and landing upside down on top of his head. Dimitroff was sitting next to Falcons owner Arthur Blank when it happened – next to the man who had nearly $35 million in guaranteed money sunk into Ryan. And had Dimitroff's hair not already been in its trademark spiky style, it would have been standing on end naturally as he watched Ryan and thought what the hell is he doing?
"That had me basically taking a deep gulp," Dimitroff would say later, recalling the pivotal snapshot in Atlanta's playoff-clinching win over Minnesota in Week 16.
Ryan's launch and landing frightened the Falcons' brass.
(US Presswire/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Although it's not something the Falcons' brass hope to relive anytime soon, this was one of those moments. This was a brief glimpse into the seemingly indescribable "it" that transformed Ryan into the league's offensive rookie of the year, and made him a 1,000-watt beacon guiding the franchise out of a pitch-black 2007.
Ryan sprinted to the Minnesota goal line with Atlanta leading 17-7 and sacrificed himself, taking a crushing hit and losing the football. The fumble would be recovered by teammate Justin Blalock in the end zone for the defining touchdown in a 24-17 win. Simply taken for what it was on the surface, the play was a significant risk punctuated by a potentially game-altering mistake. But in hindsight, it represented so much more: It was a prime example of the intangibles making Ryan what he is, and the growth he's still experiencing.
"I knew in my mind when I saw that," Dimitroff said, "that you're talking about someone with the courage and the drive and who competes and puts himself in a vulnerable position to win. To me, that was big. In my mind, it gained so many points with the team. You say, 'OK, I don't prefer to see our quarterback flying through the air like that, but this guy is a tough hombre.' "
Within that moment, one of the pieces of Ryan's "it" puzzle was revealed – toughness. But it's only one fraction of an argued equation. Like the glowing contents of Marsellus Wallace's briefcase in "Pulp Fiction," everyone has a varying idea of what lies inside "it". But most agree, whatever the defining points are, the combination of Ryan's best attributes lend themselves to something bigger and brighter. Starting with his …
"Keep cool and you command everybody."
– Louis de Saint-Just
Falcons center Todd McClure stood there, waiting to see how Ryan would respond. With 11 seconds left, the Bears had taken a 20-19 lead in their Week 6 matchup with the Falcons. But the Bears had left the door open, giving Atlanta the ball on its own 44-yard line with six seconds left and no timeouts.
Under normal circumstances, that meant a desperate heave into the end zone and, in all likelihood, a loss. But the coaching staff had drawn up a play to give Ryan some options with a quick sideline route. It was a lot to ask of even the most seasoned veteran quarterback – expecting him to not only get rid of the ball quickly, but to pick the correct receiver and then expect him to place a pass perfectly on the mark. The margin for error was zero. As they lined up, about the best thing the Falcons had going for them was what McClure saw from Ryan's demeanor.
"He wasn't fazed at all," McClure said. "He was so relaxed. He looked at us and said 'Give me time and we're going to make this happen.' "
Five seconds later, Ryan hit wideout Michael Jenkins with a perfect 26-yard pass, setting up a 48-yard Jason Elam field goal with one second left. After the stunning 22-20 comeback, Ryan's nickname of "Matty Ice" didn't sound so unrealistic anymore.
"The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers."
– Ralph Nader
Ryan and Edwards at the pro-day workout.
(US Presswire/Greg M. Cooper)
Nine months ago, Chiefs coach Herm Edwards wouldn't stop gushing. Ryan had finished his pro-day session in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in front of 42 NFL coaches and personnel men, and the consensus was in: Ryan had been good, maybe good enough to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But nobody was predicting the dream season that would eventually materialize.
Maybe the only guy who came close was Edwards, whose open flaunting of his affection for Ryan seemed more like predraft posturing than anything. But that didn't stop Edwards from proclaiming that despite Ryan's 19 interceptions as a college senior, he had the makings of a true leader, plain and simple.
"The thing this guy has is his ability to win," Edwards said. "That's the thing you like about quarterbacks. Some guys win, some guys don't. You can look at all the stats, the arm strength, you can look at all the different things, but at the end, can he win games? … The players believe that if he has the ball in his hands at the end of the game, that you have a chance to win the game."
Edwards was on the money: Four of Atlanta's 11 wins came in games in which the Falcons were either tied or trailing at some point in the fourth quarter.
"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war."
When Ryan returned home after the NFL draft with a stack of DVDs and other offensive materials from the team, he pulled out a thick stack of note cards and began preparing flash cards that he would take with him everywhere. Not because the coaching staff told him to, but because that's how he'd been mastering offenses since he was in high school.
His ability to take control of an offense is well documented amongst his coaches. He called his first audible in eighth grade. He had the authority to change plays as a freshman playing on the JV team. And when he was a senior at William Penn Charter School, he had the green light to call plays at the line of scrimmage. By his senior season at Boston College, much of the offense was flowing through him.
This is what the Falcons believed they were getting – a player who absorbed material and transferred it over to the field quickly, not just another empty 32 on the Wonderlic who didn't have the ability to make the correct decisions based on what he was seeing at the line of scrimmage. That much has become evident in the offense, as Atlanta quickly opened the scheme from the seven- and eight-man protections early in the season. Since the third game of the season, Ryan has been calling plays at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle portion of Atlanta's offense.
"When we first started the season, he was more like a caretaker," said head coach Mike Smith. "As the season progressed, we've been able to add more and more into our offense.
"When we have to get out of plays, he gets us into good plays."
"Don't give up the fight."
– Bob Marley
Ryan was sacked four times by the Bucs in Week 2.
(US Presswire/Kim Klement)
Nearly everyone intimately involved with Ryan's selection in the 2008 draft had heard the stories. About how he suffered a foot fracture midway through his junior year at Boston College and miraculously played through the pain the remainder of the season. And those who searched a little deeper might have read other accounts: the leg break Ryan suffered before his junior year of high school, which he forcefully rehabbed in time to start the football season; the time he took a nasty elbow to the head while playing prep basketball, but played through the pain and then took 30 stitches to close the wound after the game was over.
But showing your mettle in the NFL is another matter. And it's not so much just taking a hit as it is responding afterward. So Falcons owner Arthur Blank found himself on the edge of his seat after watching Ryan endure a brutal first half in Atlanta's Week 2 game against Tampa Bay. Ryan completed three of 15 passes and threw two interceptions, suffering through arguably the worst two quarters of football he's ever played. It would be those two quarters which set up a defining moment for Blank.
"The first half of the first [Tampa Bay] game, he looked like me out there," Blank said. "He got beaten up pretty good. But the beauty of it, that one game probably told you as much about him as anything else. Because the second half, he played really well. We didn't win the game, but he was one of these fighters – he got off the mat. When the 15 rounds were over, he lost. But you know what? Fifteen rounds and he was standing. He wasn't on his [rear] someplace. He was standing and still throwing punches in the 15th round, and made it pretty damn close."
"It is no great thing to be humble when you are brought low; but to be humble when you are praised is a great and rare attainment."
– St. Bernard
There are times when Ryan can be so vanilla – so low-key about his success. Ask him about failure, and he'll relate a story about the time he took a theater class at Boston College and was an utter flop as an actor. Ask him about losing his cool, and he'll tell you about the time he stopped to change a flat on his truck and dropped his mobile phone in a puddle.
What he won't talk about, unless you move him to the topic, is how he's managed to defy the odds that say an NFL quarterback can't be this good this soon. While Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler might be overjoyed to talk about his arm strength and how it compares to John Elway's, Ryan becomes almost embarrassed when discussing his exploits. He talks about being honored and humbled, and still manages to sound sincere.
This is what happens when you are the centerpiece of a franchise that goes out of its way to make sure the crown isn't a forced fit. While the Saints gladly embraced Reggie Bush as "Jesus in cleats" and all the accompanying manufactured hype, the Falcons have taken a more organic approach with Ryan. He's not the center of a massive promotional campaign. You won't see his face plastered around the city. There might be a billboard or two from AirTran – one of Ryan's few major endorsements – but it's more about the rebound of the team than anointing a quarterback savior.
"Football is very important to him, and he's got some of that [swagger] but doesn't go out of his way to show it to you off the field," said linebacker Keith Brooking. "That's refreshing. That equals strong chemistry and a great working environment. It's very easy to win as a team when someone brings that quality."
Strong chemistry. A great working environment. When suggested that Brooking could have never said that a year ago, he laughs and shakes his head.
"Yeah," Brooking said. "Obviously."
"Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens."
– Jimi Hendrix
Ryan with Dimitroff during his introduction draft weekend.
(US Presswire/Dale Zanine)
In the run up to the draft, the one knock that never escaped Ryan's ears were his 19 interceptions as a senior at Boston College. Despite the fact that some of those interceptions went off the hands of his wideouts, or were simply a matter of miscommunication, there was a perception of Ryan as a questionable decision-maker. Some even suggested that Miami Dolphins president Bill Parcells never considered Ryan because he didn't want to take a chance on someone who had the potential to be turnover-prone on the NFL level.
The Falcons never had those worries. But they seized on the opportunity to give Ryan a test. One night prior to the draft, a few members of Atlanta's coaching staff and front office sat down with Ryan in a Brookline, Mass., restaurant and offered him an out. They purposely spun the conversation in the direction of Ryan's teammates at Boston College, and how maybe his numbers would have been different if the supporting cast had been better. It was sneaky bait, and surely some younger players would have taken the opportunity to pawn off their mistakes. But in a moment that still brings a smile to the face of Dimitroff, Ryan waved the notion off.
"His response was right on the money," Dimitroff said. "He talked about it being a team – and it wasn't contrived – and talked about this as a group effort. He totally steered clear of throwing a dart at any of the supporting cast that he had there. He handled it exactly how he needed to handle it. I think there was some clapping underneath the table."
"Ability will never catch up with the demand for it."
– Malcolm Forbes
Recount all the good things about Ryan – all the intangibles, all the "it" factors – and Ryan's teammates will eventually make one thing clear: You can't do what he does without talent. Many a quarterback has come and gone in the NFL, gifted with intangibles but lacking in measurables. Indeed, Ryan's character and mental ability only flourish at this level because they work in concert with his physical gifts.
Relate how some scouts questioned those gifts, and Ryan's teammates will only laugh. Jenkins will tell you about Ryan's first NFL pass – that fairytale-like 62-yard touchdown in the opener against Detroit. He'll tell you how Ryan saw the safety crawling up on the play, but how it took perfect timing and zip to give Jenkins a shot at going the distance. Ask Roddy White, and he'll tell you about the 16-yard touchdown pass Ryan threw to him against New Orleans in Week 10, and how in the film session the following day, the wideouts couldn't believe how Ryan had fit it between two defenders.
And if you talk long enough, you'll get into the nuances that separate good players from great players – sustained winners from flashes in the pan. Like the time against Tampa Bay on Dec. 14, with Atlanta facing third-and-4 on the Buccaneers 38: Ryan took a snap and had the option to pitch to running back Michael Turner or try to pick up the first down on his own legs. He pumped toward Turner, saw traffic in the backfield, and took off himself, picking up a first down and setting up a game-winning field goal.
"I thought, 'Wow, I can't believe he did that,' " Turner said after the game. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, that's a [blown play] for a rookie quarterback. But that's all him. Everything is clean. Things get crazy, and you know what to expect. Everything you've done 1,000 times in practice, he translates that into a game like it's no big deal."