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Starting to soar in Atlanta

Ex-Eagle Ryan has Falcons on the rise

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / October 19, 2008
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With no NFL game to play today, Eagle-turned-Falcon Matt Ryan had plans to return to his alma mater to attend last night's Boston College-Virginia Tech game. The trip is another reminder of how far he's come in a short time.

It was March 18 when Ryan held his much-anticipated Pro Day workout at BC for NFL scouts, coaches, and personnel men representing 22 teams. They were seeking answers to the pressing questions: Could he throw the long ball? Why did he have 19 interceptions in 2007? Could he handle the pressure?

Just seven months ago, Ryan was anything but a sure bet.

But things can change fast in the NFL, and Ryan's rise - and the Falcons' 4-2 start - is a perfect example.

The Falcons were widely considered one of the league's worst teams entering the season, with a new coach (Mike Smith), new general manager (Thomas Dimitroff), and an owner still stinging from the Michael Vick fiasco and coach Bobby Petrino's abrupt 2007 resignation.

Yet now, after selling, selling, selling a fresh start to their fan base in the offseason, they suddenly find themselves in the managing-expectations game.

Ryan, the unflappable quarterback, is a main reason why.

Former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy, in the excitement following last Sunday's improbable come-from-behind 22-20 win over the Bears in which Ryan made a remarkable 26-yard throw to Michael Jenkins to set up the winning field goal with one second remaining, compared him to Tom Brady.

Ryan, No. 2 in your Falcons program, conceded that's a far-fetched comparison. He repeated over and over last week that he's resisting the temptation to get too high over the Falcons' high-flying start, which means he's taking a cue from Smith, who reminds his players daily that the only success that matters is sustained success.

Smith acknowledges, however, that Ryan is off to a nice start in terms of giving himself a foundation on which to build.

"Matt has really, in my mind, accelerated the learning curve in the first six weeks," he said. "That doesn't mean there aren't going to be games where he has tough sledding, but I think he has done a very nice job executing and managing our offense. What we've asked Matt to do, he's done very well.

"Often times with young players, they need to see it and then make corrections on film before seeing it again. The thing that is most impressive about him to me is that he's made those adjustments in the game."

Smith points to one of the games the Falcons lost, a 24-9 decision in Tampa Bay Sept. 14, as a good example. Ryan started that game 0 for 9, but after collecting himself in the locker room at halftime and going over the team's plan, he connected on 8 of his first 9 passes in the third quarter.

In all, Ryan is 93 of 161 for 1,164 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Those statistics don't necessarily reflect his cool demeanor at the end of games; in the last two weeks, he helped the Falcons hold on for a 27-24 victory in Green Bay, and then recover from what would have been a disappointing loss after the Bears scored a go-ahead touchdown with 11 seconds remaining.

Such poise was part of what drew the Falcons to Ryan. Smith noted that one of the clinchers came at a dinner at the Capital Grille back in March, after the team had sent its key staffers to BC to privately work him out.

"We put him in a pretty stressful situation," Smith said, noting that the traveling party included himself, Dimitroff, owner Arthur Blank, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave. "It was a round-table dinner, and watching him there and then talking to his coaches at Boston College and his former coaches who moved to N.C. State, it became more evident he was the direction we wanted to go."

The Falcons aren't asking Ryan to do too much, instead relying on a running game that is averaging 5 yards per carry with lead man Michael Turner (128 carries) and speed man Jerious Norwood (41 carries). Atlanta has run the ball 34 more times than it has passed, with only Baltimore (36 more runs) having a greater differential.

Ryan isn't the only rookie playing a major role for the Falcons, as fellow first-round pick Sam Baker is starting at left tackle, second-rounder Curtis Lofton starts at middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense, and Smith considers nickel cornerback Chevis Jackson (third round) and third receiver Harry Douglas (third round) starters as well.

Partially because of that youth, Smith is cautioning not to expect too much too soon because rebuilding projects usually take more than six games. Coming from the Patriots' successful program, Dimitroff also knows about the importance of managing expectations.

Ryan's encouraging start has the city buzzing, however, and based on the problems the franchise had the last few years, it's an encouraging issue to be facing.

"We're going to have the ebbs and flows as a football team," Smith said. "The way I look at it, the start has confirmed some of the things we've done. But we're a long way away."

Specialized instruction
It was 1999, and Sean Morey, a rookie receiver from Brown, was jotting down notes at a feverish pace. Steve Tasker, the former Buffalo Bills special teams dynamo, was on the line.

The conversation was facilitated by Fred Smerlas, who had played with Tasker in Buffalo. Smerlas hooked the two up because Morey - a seventh-round draft choice of the Patriots - knew he'd have to become Taskerlike on special teams if he was going to make an NFL roster.

"I remember writing down everything he said, verbatim," Morey recalled. "Ironically, he talked a lot about punt blocking and having a different repertoire of rushes. He just broke it down.

"I remember really appreciating that he took time out of his busy schedule to talk to a guy who was just trying to make a team."

Nine years later, Morey is still playing in the NFL, now in his second season with the Cardinals. Last week, his blocked punt in overtime - which was recovered in the end zone - helped the Cardinals beat the Cowboys.

The block, which along with four tackles earned him NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, had Morey reflecting on his chat with Tasker.

"I remember him saying, 'Everything you do, do it better than they expect you to do it. Don't ever live up to expectations, because for special teams guys, usually the expectations are low,' " he said.

Morey, the first player from Brown to win an NFL Player of the Week award, is now the type of player late-round rookies look to as an inspiration. He has played for the Patriots (1999), Eagles (2001, 2003), Steelers (2004-06), and Cardinals (2007-08).

As for the Cardinals, who have put themselves in a good position to win the NFC West, Morey likes what he sees.

"We have a lot of veteran leaders and people that understand their role on the team," he said. "I think there is really good team chemistry here, the kind of chemistry that I've seen when I've been on successful teams, where you play for each other and hold each other accountable."

Owners huddle up on how to play things
NFL owners met in St. Petersburg, Fla., early last week, and here were some of the issues discussed and where they stand:

Expanding the regular season. No vote was taken, but there was a full briefing. Commissioner Roger Goodell does not envision the 16-game season changing for 2009, but his sense is that if there is support for expansion, it would likely be for an 18-game season, not 17. "This is far-reaching in its effect," he said. "There are labor, media, financial and competitive ramifications. We have to take all of those and consider those and determine the best course of action."

How the league is affected by the economic slowdown. Goodell acknowledged that the NFL has undergone some "belt-tightening" in terms of cutting back on costs. He did not specify figures but called the reduction significant.

The Steelers ownership situation. Four Rooney brothers are willing to sell the 64 percent of the team they own to Dan Rooney - which would keep the team in the family, as the NFL desires. Goodell said he's been clear with the Rooneys that "we would like to have this done on a fast timetable."

The collective bargaining agreement. Goodell does not expect owners to have a proposal to the Players Association in the next few months. "We are spending all of our time on internal analysis right now," he said.

The possibility of a spring exhibition game. The NFL is looking to capitalize on year-round interest in the game, and Goodell indicated that a few clubs raised the possibility of a spring game/scrimmage, similar to what colleges have.

Etc.
Other side of the coin
Although the NFL instituted a new rule that allows teams winning the coin toss to defer their decision to the second half, more clubs are taking the ball. Through six weeks, there have been 49 instances in which teams have taken the ball, with 38 deferrals. The gap was narrower through four weeks, when 32 teams took the ball, with 30 deferrals. "I always want the ball," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who has elected to receive in the three tosses that his team won. "I have always had that mind-set; if you don't want the ball, then you don't have a lot of confidence in your offense."

Could Brees surpass Marino?
It's early, but Saints quarterback Drew Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino's season record of 5,084 passing yards, set in 1984. Brees has rung up 1,993 yards, which projects to 5,314 for 16 games. Thriving in coach Sean Payton's aggressive scheme, Brees has thrown for at least 320 yards in four consecutive games, and if he hits that mark again today against Carolina, he'll join Rich Gannon (6) and Kurt Warner (5) as the only players in history with five consecutive 320-yard games.

Simon says sack
Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware is in the middle of an impressive streak, registering at least one sack in nine straight games, dating to last season. That's the second-longest streak since the league began tracking the statistic in 1982. The Broncos' Simon Fletcher had at least one sack in 10 straight games covering the 1992-93 seasons, and Ware can tie that mark today.

Futures trading
Because the trading deadline is so early - after just six games - there are usually few deals. But with the Lions 0-5 and going nowhere, they made the league's only official deal last week, shipping receiver Roy Williams to Dallas for 2009 first-, third-, and sixth-round picks. In addition to Williams, the Cowboys receive a 2009 seventh-round pick. Considering Williams was in the final year of his contract and that re-signing him was going to be difficult, the Lions - who need a lot of players - did well to get that haul of draft choices.

Successful line of work
Last week, the Titans' defensive line was highlighted as one of the NFL's best-but-unknown units, a group that has helped the club to its 5-0 start. The Titans are also strong on the offensive line, having surrendered just two sacks all season. A look at that line:

Michael Roos - Left tackle, a second-round pick in 2005, signed a lucrative contract extension in the offseason.

Eugene Amano - Seventh-round draft choice from 2004, formerly a backup, starts at left guard.

Kevin Mawae - The center, now in his 15th season, has appeared in more games than any other active lineman.

Jake Scott - Right guard was signed as a free agent from the Colts prior to the season.

David Stewart - Right tackle was selected in the fourth round in 2005, also was locked up with a long-term extension.

McCargo hold
Bills defensive line coach Bill Kollar found himself in a bit of a tough spot last week. After Buffalo traded disappointing 2006 first-round draft choice John McCargo to the Colts, Kollar told the Buffalo News that McCargo didn't always have the necessary desire. But the trade was voided when McCargo didn't pass the Colts' physical, so he ended up back in Buffalo. On his first day back, McCargo waved off reporters, telling them he had nothing to say that would result in anything positive.

October crest
Something about October seems to bring out the best in the Colts. They've won 13 consecutive games in the month, and if they win at Green Bay today, they will tie the longest October winning streak since 1970, joining the Dolphins (1971-74) and Broncos (1983-86), who won 14 in a row in the month.

Did you know?
Since 2000, Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens has the most plays of 30 yards or more from scrimmage, with 75. Patriots receiver Randy Moss (72), Colts receiver Marvin Harrison (68), Rams receiver Torry Holt (65), and Giants receiver Plaxico Burress (58) round out the top five.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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