FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - There is caution, because really, what has Matt Ryan accomplished? So his first pass went for a touchdown. So he's been accurate, vocal, respectful and, most important, a winner. So Ryan has the Atlanta Falcons, last year's most beleaguered franchise with a displaced $100 million quarterback and a turncoat coach, in contention in the NFC South with a surprising 4-2 record that includes consecutive wins at Green Bay and against Chicago.
What does any of that really matter? It's only six games, and the boy from Exton, Chester County, is a rookie, a 23-year-old, baby-faced, polite, workaholic rookie whose biggest vices, apparently, are golf and wearing Boston College gear.
Matt Ryan can't make Atlanta a winner, not this year. Not yet. Those six games? They've been great, beyond expectation, highly encouraging, but that can't be the norm over the course of a grueling 16-game season. The statistics show rookie quarterbacks don't thrive. Look at Donovan McNabb. Or Peyton Manning. Or Eli Manning.
But could Ryan, a three-sport athlete at Penn Charter, be the exception? Could he be the one?
"Use a lot of caution," first-year Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "He's six games into this process, and there's going to be games that aren't going to go the way we want them to. History says that's the case. He is mature beyond his years, but even with that being said, this is a process."
Six months after the Falcons used the third overall pick to select him in the draft, Ryan triumphantly is coming home in what has turned into a banner sports weekend in Philadelphia. Ryan's beloved Phillies are in the World Series, and his new team, the Falcons, will play his boyhood team, the Eagles, on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Just don't expect too much, because Ryan is just a rookie.
Eve of the draft
Packed into a midtown Manhattan hotel suite were Ryan's inner circle of friends, former coaches, and family. It was the eve of the biggest day of Ryan's life - the 2008 NFL draft - and Ryan was mixing nerves with nostalgia.
After a stellar career at Boston College and a senior year that put him in the running for the Heisman Trophy, Ryan was one of six players the NFL invited to New York for the draft. He was going to be a top pick - the only question was by whom.
Before the party adjourned, Ryan pulled aside his high school coach, Brian McCloskey.
"He told me, 'I'm going to be the best quarterback in the history of the NFL,' " McCloskey said earlier this week. "As I stood there and listened to him, I believed him."
Ryan was prepared. By the time he was a senior at Boston College, he had graduated, so he spent countless hours watching film in the coaches' offices learning first-year coach Jeff Jagodzinski's system.
"He's one of those gym-rat kids," Jagodzinski said. "He can't get enough of it, but he's smart, too, so he picked it up real fast."
Ryan led Boston College to an 11-3 record, completing 388 of 645 passes for 4,508 yards and 31 TDs to become the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. His .593 completion percentage set school and conference records, and he finished seventh in the Heisman voting.
After the season but before the draft, Ryan played golf with Jagodzinski and Boston College's athletic director, Gene DeFilippo. Jagodzinski remembers the frigid temperature that day, and Ryan's agenda. Ryan asked Jagodzinski, a former assistant for the Falcons and Packers, question after question about the NFL, how to prepare, what to expect from camp, and how to earn respect.
"The best intangible that you can have is that you win, and he won a lot of games here at Boston College," Jagodzinski said. "And he's going to win a lot of football games in the NFL, too. That's the mark of a good quarterback. That's the No. 1 intangible: Does he win?"
Ryan walked into a complicated situation in Atlanta. After the debacle in 2007, when Michael Vick was jailed on dogfighting charges and head coach Bobby Petrino quit 13 games into the season, the Falcons were rebuilding. They had a new general manager in Thomas Dimitroff, and a first-time head coach in Mike Smith, a former defensive coordinator in Jacksonville.
Dimitroff and Smith overhauled the Falcons' roster, replacing 60 percent of the players, including popular veterans Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler and DeAngelo Hall. They signed several key free agents, including San Diego running back Michael Turner, and tried to build a foundation through the draft.
At the first minicamp, Smith told the players that every position was up for grabs, and the best players would win the starting jobs, regardless of experience or "zeroes in your paycheck."
Ryan went through minicamps as the No. 3 quarterback, behind Joey Harrington and Chris Redman and tied with D.J. Shockley. His teammates said he was respectful of the process. He watched Harrington and Redman take their reps and asked for advice. Even with a six-year contract worth approximately $48 million, Ryan didn't big-time anybody. He worked, slowly developing the trust of the offensive linemen, receivers and running backs.
In the Falcons' first preseason game against Jacksonville, Ryan went in on Atlanta's third offensive series. As he jogged onto the field for his first NFL action, he was overcome by nerves. In the huddle, Ryan unintelligibly barked the play call.
"He was all wide-eyed," said receiver Roddy White. "It was the nervous play call, and I just looked at him and was like: 'Hey, you've got to go now.' He broke the huddle and completed his first ball, and from there on he was just getting into the groove."
Said Ryan: "My heart was pounding. That was kind of the first experience where I was like, 'Oh my God, this is it, I'm about to go in and play against NFL guys.' At that point in the game it was still first teamers on both sides of the ball. It was real live action and that was the first time, and since then I've gotten more comfortable and feel better each time I go into a game."
Ryan threw a touchdown pass to White to end that first drive. Two weeks later, the starting job was his.
Why not play him?
You don't pick a player third so he can sit on the bench, even if he is a quarterback. The Falcons needed Ryan to be their franchise player, their quarterback of the present and the future. They needed him now, and, when the competition was over, they decided that Ryan was the most talented and released Harrington.
"I know some people say conventional wisdom is, 'Do you play him, or do you sit him?' " Smith said. "With our staff and our philosophy, we said we were going to play the best players, so we would lose our accountability if Matt was the best quarterback and we didn't play him. We felt it was our job to put the best players out there and give us the best opportunity to win.
"Matt obviously gave us that opportunity, so I don't think there was really any decision to make. We felt that playing on the field and experiencing it was much more advantageous than standing on the sideline watching."
Ryan's first career pass, against Detroit in the first game, was to Michael Jenkins, who took it 62 yards for a touchdown. It was some start. The Falcons won, 34-21, in part because Turner rushed for a franchise-record 220 yards and scored two touchdowns, reducing the pressure on Ryan.
The next week at Tampa Bay, however, Ryan looked like a rookie in the first half. He misfired on his first nine pass attempts. He threw two picks. Ryan's first completion came with less than seven minutes left in the second quarter, and at halftime the Falcons trailed by 17-3.
In the locker room, the coaches huddled with Ryan, pointing out ways for him to exploit Monte Kiffin's defense. Ryan could've tucked his head, but he didn't. He listened, and in the second half, he completed 6 of 7 passes for 62 yards on one possession that ended in a field goal, and threw several completions on third downs.
The Falcons lost, but Ryan's second-half performance got his team's attention.
"Really, I couldn't believe his reaction when he was faced with a lot of adversity in the Tampa Bay game," said veteran linebacker Keith Brooking. "It was the first time we'd played on the road in a very hostile environment where the whole stadium was against him except the guys on our sideline, and he bounced back and played extremely well for the rest of the game. That showed me a lot."
As is his nature, Ryan downplayed the moment. It was just another step in his evolution.
"That's the thing when you're young and you're inexperienced," Ryan said. "There's going to be times when you go out and you don't play as well, but you have to be able to make that work for you, and whether that's week to week, or game to game, or series to series, it doesn't make a difference."
Still, for rookies, those adjustments usually aren't made series to series, Smith said.
"Often times, the way young players learn is in the film room, and they make the corrections for the next week," Smith said. "The thing that impressed us as a staff, and me personally, was his ability to adjust to what had been presented to him from the first half to the second half. The learning curve really was accelerated in that game. Not only did the coaching staff take notice, but the team took notice."
On Oct. 14, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a headline about Ryan that made Dimitroff crazy. It said, "Rookie Wonder Boy" in big letters.
"At first my feeling was, 'Oh my God, no. We don't want to see this. This isn't fair to him,' " Dimitroff said. "But if there's a young quarterback who could handle that and dismiss that and understand it's six games and he has a lot of learning to do, I felt comfortable Matt was that type of guy."
No, a wonder boy Ryan isn't, at least off the field. He's completed nearly 58 percent of his passes for more than 1,100 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions, drawing comparisons to a young Peyton Manning, but you'd never know it. Ryan would rather talk about the Phillies, his inability to make it through an entire World Series game because they start so late and he has to get up so early, and how he misses listening to "Harry and Wheels."
"I like 'em in six," Ryan said. "That'll be good in The Philadelphia Inquirer back home. Everybody will enjoy that."
Ryan said it will be "special" to play against the Eagles on Sunday, but that once the ball is snapped it would be "just another game," albeit one with about 50 friends and family in the stands.
The learning curve, however, should continue.
The Eagles are 8-3 against rookie quarterbacks in the Jim Johnson era. Only two rookies, Washington's Patrick Ramsey and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, managed passer ratings north of 70. Against Ryan, Johnson likely will bring the house.
"This guy here is as advanced as I've seen, as far as a rookie," Johnson said.
Quite a compliment. But the Falcons likely won't pass that on to Ryan. Remember, they are preaching caution. It's only six games. The season, like the quarterback, is young.
"There's room for improvement in a number of areas," Smith said. "That's just part of the maturation process. As a team, there's a lot of areas we have to improve on, and Matt can be a big contributor in those areas."
NFL rookie quarterbacks: The first 6 games
Name Team/Year Starts Record Comp Att Yards TDs INTs
Matt Ryan Falcons 2008 6 4-2 93 161 1164 5 3
Donovan McNabb Eagles 1999 0 2-4 13 29 98 0 0
Peyton Manning Colts 1998 6 1-5 114 210 1364 6 14
Michael Vick Falcons 2001 0 3-3 14 24 213 0 0
Eli Manning Giants 2004 0 4-2 3 9 66 0 0
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 2004 5 5-1 78 113 937 7 4