FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Rookie quarterbacks are typically lucky if they can get through their first NFL season without tripping over their own shoelaces, getting benched by the coaching staff or getting second-guessed by season-ticket holders.
Going against all of the negative stereotypes for a player in his position, though, Matt Ryan was able to walk without falling as a rookie with the Falcons in 2008, and his ability was never questioned while leading Atlanta to 11 wins and its first playoff appearance in four years.
Ryan, who spent four years at Boston College, was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year and threw for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His performance has gone down — with that of Dan Marino in 1983 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 — as one of the greatest seasons for a rookie quarterback in league history.
But Ryan is no Biz Markie. The quarterback is 2-0 with improved statistics in 2009, and the third overall pick in the 2008 draft has proven he's certainly no one-hit wonder. The New England Patriots will have a serious task at hand Sunday at Gillette Stadium when they take on a 24-year-old who has already emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
"Ryan's good," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "He can get it down the field. He puts it right on the money, very accurate, good technique player, good throwing mechanics, good ballhandling, good ball location and placement, accuracy. He knows when to fire it, [and] knows when to put a touch on it. He's really impressive."
Belichick has been known to talk up his weekly opponents — he could make the 2008 Detroit Lions sound like Super Bowl contenders — but the Pats' coach was genuine with his praise of Ryan, who has 449 yards, five touchdowns, one interception and a 68.3 completion percentage this season.
Ryan has improved his accuracy by 7 percent in 2009, and he's making throws he couldn't make as a rookie, according to Falcons head coach Mike Smith. For instance, on a third down against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2, Ryan delivered a difficult ball to tight end Tony Gonzalez to move the chains. Those were the types of passes Smith wanted Ryan to work on last offseason — the ones his receivers, and no one else, could catch — and once again, Ryan impressed his boss.
"I think just week-to-week preparation has gotten better," Ryan said about how he has managed to improve in his second season. "I have a better feel for what it takes, how to set up my schedule, what's important, what's not important, and I feel like I do a better job during the week of getting ready to play on Sunday."
Ryan became Boston College's primary starter in 2006, and he experienced relative success. But in 2007, when Jeff Jagodzinski took over as Eagles head coach, Ryan had a record-setting season and one of the most prolific campaigns in school history.
His growth was directly related to the professional experience of Jagodzinski, who spent the previous year as the offensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers (and coincidentally was the Falcons' offensive line coach from 2004-05). Jagodzinski saw Ryan's potential and set him up with a few conversations with Brett Favre, who provided some guidance throughout Ryan's senior year. That experience, as well as his ability to prove his worth on the field as a rookie, has helped him improve as a leader this season.
"Anytime you've been around a situation for longer, you become more comfortable with your role on the team," Ryan said. "I feel more comfortable than I did last year, but that comes with playing the position. You have to take on some leadership qualities, just as a result of the position you play. I definitely feel more comfortable with it this year, though."
With the Falcons' travel schedule this weekend, Ryan won't have a chance to stop by Boston College for the Eagles' game against Wake Forest. Either way, it's his third time back in the area since leaving BC. He returned during the Falcons' bye week in 2008 to attend Boston College's game against Virginia Tech, and came back again last winter to hang around the city.
This time is clearly less of a vacation.
"It [will] be great to get back there," Ryan said. "It's a part of the country that I love. [It has] a special spot in my heart up there from my days at BC, so I'll be excited to get back. I know there will be some people at the game that it will be good to see. But with that said, we're going up there to play this football game and to try and win this football game. There will be chances in the offseason to try and get back to enjoy the Boston area. Right now, we're trying to go up there and take care of our business."
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