Falcons pay steep price for face-lift

ATLANTA – If the NFL wants to change the personal conduct of its players, it should bring every rookie to the room where the Atlanta Falcons held a news conference to announce the signing of quarterback Matt Ryan.

And then it should take them to visit former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan. The contrast is stark.

Most people look at Ryan's six-year, $72 million contract, which includes a rookie record $34.75 million guaranteed, as an example of an NFL salary system gone haywire. A guy who has never played a down in the NFL is now its third-highest player, trailing only Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The Falcons never wanted this rebuilding project. They were forced into it when Vick took team owner Arthur Blank's money and adoration for granted, and the franchise is overpaying to start anew.

Ryan's signing was announced at Blank's grandiose office building in the tony Buckhead section of Atlanta in a room that looked like something from the Palace of Versailles, complete with five chandeliers, a gorgeous inlaid wood floor and smoke-stained mirrors at each end. Wine and appetizers, served by a wait staff, added to the ambiance.

The room, a small part of Blank's complex, isn't the usual spot people would expect the signing of a football player to take place.

"Maybe they should," Ryan said with equal parts deadpan and dutiful respect. He was asked if the event seemed weird for a guy who until recently was dealing with college life.

"Not really, I feel comfortable. I like the room," he said with a light grin.

Ryan affirmed his nickname of "Matty Ice" during the news conference with a series of similar one-liners. It was impressive, considering that he was flanked by Blank to his left and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to his right.

That's a human vise grip of pressure and expectation.

Ryan summed up the heady experience by saying, "There's a lot of work and I need to go earn it." In short, Ryan needs to be good and the Falcons need to win. That's a lot to put on any rookie, let alone the pressure that goes with getting so much money.

That money comes with a price. If young NFL players don't see the difference between where Ryan and Vick are spending time these days, they don't get that personal conduct is a point of emphasis for Goodell and the image-conscious NFL. The league is still trying to find ways to impress on its players and their teams the importance of good citizenship.

This week, Goodell discussed fining teams whose players violate the personal conduct policy, which would be an extension of the system he instituted last year to handle Vick, Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson, among others.

Why does the league need more teeth in the personal conduct policy? Alex Marvez of foxsports.com recently cited an interesting statistic: Over the past three months, NFL players have been arrested nearly as often as the same period a year ago, before Goodell announced the policy (26 this year, 27 in 2007). You have to wonder if the policy is working,

Goodell countered by saying that the time period is a snapshot, not a long-term analysis. Fair point. There have not been the ugly or stupid situations that marred the 2007 offseason. But punishment is only part of what prevents bad behavior. There has to be a carrot at the end of any stick.

That carrot is not just the money that the Falcons threw at Ryan, but the environment they surrounded him with. This is the life that NFL players should be aspiring to, the one that they should be shown. But that life is a privilege and not a right.

As Ryan said, with Vick sitting in a federal prison cell 843 miles away, it's a comfortable room.