HOUSTON — Most of us greet the new year by vowing to get to the gym more often or to eat fewer sweets.
Matt Ryan’s list was a bit more ambitious: Improve in every facet of the game, evolve from a very good NFL quarterback into an MVP candidate and lead the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl.
And you thought getting up off your couch and onto the treadmill was hard.
“It started way back, I’d say, around this time last year, where he was going to try to take his game to a new spot,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said Tuesday as his team continued its media tour for Sunday’s Super Bowl LI showdown with the New England Patriots. “It’s a challenging task, when you’re already playing at a really high level, to go to a higher one.
“And he nailed it. It’s like a New Year’s resolution. Sometimes people want to do this or that to change their games and over time that may fade. The thing I admire so much about him, especially this year, is he has not backed off.”
Much has been said about Tom Brady’s endless quest to get better, but the Falcons’ push to the Super Bowl can be attributed in large part to Ryan’s recognition, after eight professional seasons, that he had room to improve.
Looking back, Ryan saw things younger quarterbacks often fail to recognize and aspects of the game his younger self once overlooked.
“I think, first and foremost, you need to recognize coverage and you need to understand what certain coverages look like and what spots in certain coverages look like,” Ryan said. “And that takes time. There’s a process to understanding that, and I think as you start to recognize, ‘This is X, Y and Z coverage. These spots look like that,’ you begin to know what is open and what isn’t. …
“I feel like that is something that has taken time, for sure, and experience has really helped me in that regard.”
On the heels of arguably his worst season statistically in 2015, Ryan played at a career-best rate this season. His 38 touchdowns with only seven interceptions spoke for itself, but his 9.3 yards per attempt and 69.9 completion percentage also both outpaced his career averages.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan expanded the playbook, particularly in utilizing running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman in the passing game.
As a result, the Falcons aren’t just effective when they have the football. They’re also having a blast.
“When me and Free go out wide, you see all the (defense’s) communication,” Coleman said. “The ‘backers looking back to the safety to see if he’s got help and things like that. It’s real fun to be out there. It’s just funny to see, because guys get so confused.”
Of course, none of that confusion or fun would be possible without the man under center having a career year. But it didn’t happen overnight. It was a long grind to the precipice of greatness, with a potential Super Bowl victory the final step to fulfilling his goal.
“He came into this season like a man on a mission,” Quinn said. “He wanted to have the best training camp he’s ever had, trying to find that way to be 1 percent better, and he’s not backed off. He’s continually found ways to improve his game, and not only has it affected him, it’s affected other guys on the team.
“It wasn’t just one thing, but it was the length, and it shows the grit he has to do something over and over and over again and not back off.”
Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images
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