MICHAEL VICK'S still-sore ribs likely will preclude what surely would have been one of the more interesting story lines this fall, maybe even on a par with Donovan McNabb's return to Lincoln Financial Field as a Washington Redskin or a potential Roy Halladay vs. Cliff Lee pitching matchup in the World Series.
When the Eagles host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon, Kevin Kolb is expected to get the start at quarterback in place of the injured Vick with a local kid, Matt Ryan, taking the snaps for the visitors.
Considering that Ryan was taken by the Falcons with the third overall pick of the 2008 draft out of Boston College for the specific purpose of replacing Vick, who was convicted on a federal dogfighting charge in 2007, the pairing of Atlanta franchise quarterbacks past and present would have fueled a veritable blizzard of debates north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
If there never had been a thing called Bad Newz Kennels, would Vick have avoided incarceration and be starting for the Falcons on Sunday instead of Ryan? Would Ryan now be the primary passer for another NFL team that was in the market for a first-round talent at quarterback in 2008?
Ryan, a Penn Charter grad, grew up as a fan of all the Philadelphia teams, so he knows what makes his hometown perhaps the most passionate sports city in the country. But he doesn't have the time or inclination to play a speculative game of what-if, not with a contest that actually counts in the standings coming up in just a few days.
"I didn't really give it too much thought just because all that stuff happened even before I came out of college," Ryan said yesterday from Atlanta in a speakerphone interview with Philly media members at the NovaCare Complex. "It wasn't a big part of my career. I got here and the situation was what it was."
But, as is the case whenever he faces a relentless pass rush, Ryan knew he couldn't sidestep further questions about succeeding Vick. The first overall pick out of Virginia Tech in the 2001 draft and, at the time he signed a $130 million contract in 2004, Vick was the league's highest-paid player.
"To be honest with you, it hasn't been a big topic of conversation down here," Ryan said when the topic of Vick came back around like a boomerang. "That situation is in Philadelphia. Mike's playing there now.
"Obviously, he's still going to have fans down here because he was such a dynamic player while he was here. But within this organization and within this locker room, we're focused on the guys that are in this building."
Time, they say, heals all wounds. And if it doesn't, well, it at least can ease the sting. McNabb appearing here as a visiting player, and a player with a team in the NFC East, happened less than 9 months after he had thrown his final pass in midnight green. The 6-4, 224-pound Ryan is in his third season with the Falcons, and if he hasn't completely succeeded in making Atlanta fans forget Vick's six dazzling seasons with the team, he has achieved enough, over a sufficiently long period of time, to suggest that the tradeoff might actually have been for the better.
"The only thing I wanted to do when I came here was to continue to get better year in and year out, week in and week out, and try to play football at a high level," said Ryan, more of a classic pocket passer than was Vick, whose ramblin', scramblin' style was reminiscent of Barry Sanders, not Dan Marino. "I'm still working toward that."
But unlike Kolb, who has started four games in four seasons, Ryan was given immediate on-the-job training instead of being asked to serve an extended apprenticeship. After he broke Doug Flutie's school record with 28 touchdown passes at BC in 2007, Ryan became the first rookie quarterback to start a season for the Falcons since Steve Bartkowski in 1975. "Matty Ice," who earned the nickname in college for his penchant for leading fourth-quarter, come-from-behind drives, was so unrattled by his introduction to the NFL's big stage that his very first pass in a regular-season game resulted in a 62-yard scoring strike to Michael Jenkins. He went on to guide Atlanta to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth while being voted the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The Falcons are leading the NFC South with a 4-1 record in the early going, including a victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, as Ryan has completed 109 of 177 passes (61.6 percent) for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns, with three interceptions.
Now it's a return to Lincoln Financial Field, where he appeared a couple of times in college against Temple and as a rookie against the Eagles.
"My first year there [with the Falcons] was a special experience, but this year it's just another road game," Ryan said. "The only difference is you might get to see a couple of family members after the game."