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Football Notes

Further spreading his wings

Falcons’ Ryan looks to take the next step

MATT RYAN Well worth it MATT RYAN
Well worth it
By Mike Reiss
July 26, 2009

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The last time Matt Ryan was making headlines on Boston College’s campus, he was throwing passes in front of representatives from 23 NFL teams. It was March 2008 and Ryan was under heavy scrutiny with scouts asking the question: Is he worth the big investment of a top-five draft choice?

Some 16 months later, the answer is much clearer than it was that day at the Alumni Stadium indoor bubble.

It’s a yes. Or more like Y-E-S, as it didn’t take long for Ryan to transition from unproven prospect to his current standing as a rising franchise quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons.

“Life has changed a lot, and I think it’s all positive,’’ Ryan said, pausing for some reflection before starting the grind of another season. “The time has gone fast and quick. I still miss Boston, and I loved being up there at BC, but I feel like I ended up in a great place here. It’s been an adjustment.

“Obviously, financially, your life changes. There are a lot of different issues that arise as a result of that, a lot of different responsibilities that come with that. The pressures of playing in the NFL are greater than they were in college, and mentally, I have to approach that differently. Just being in an NFL locker room is different than a college locker room. You don’t live with these guys, they’re not your roommates and stuff like that. It’s a different vibe. The guys are older. I think it’s more difficult to earn respect in the NFL than it is in college, and it takes time.

“So those are some of the changes, the differences, and some of the things I’ve had to adjust to over the last 16 months.’’

To those on the outside looking in, it appears Ryan has done so with the ease in which he led four fourth-quarter comebacks last season and directed the Falcons to an 11-5 record and unexpected playoff berth. If he felt the burden of signing a six-year, $66 million contract, it has hardly showed.

“The biggest thing, I think, is surrounding yourself with the right people. When you do that, it makes things go a lot smoother,’’ said Ryan, who took the opposite approach of the Falcons’ former franchise quarterback, Michael Vick.

“You have to work with advisers and people that you trust. It takes time to find them. For me, that was probably the most important thing - to go ahead and find the right people. I think I’ve done that and they’ve helped me out a bunch. You also need support from your family, and my family has been great through it. They’re the people I lean on most at this point.’’

On the field last season, Ryan’s primary support came in the form of a solid offensive line, a bruising running game led by free agent signee Michael Turner, and a playmaking receiver corps headlined by Roddy White. This year, Ryan is excited veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez has been added to the mix.

Ryan isn’t expecting any major scheme adjustments, as the Falcons will continue to mix and match personnel groupings. Unlike NFC South rival Carolina - which works mostly out of a base set with two receivers, two running backs, and one tight end - the Falcons take pride in switching in and out of different groupings. On one play it could be three receivers, one tight end, and one running back, while on the next it could be two receivers, two tight ends, and one running back.

“I think that’s one of the things we do well,’’ Ryan said. “That kind of allows us to keep defenses out of rhythm. So, I think that hopefully we’ll do what we did last year, but we’ll do it a lot better. That’s kind of been our focus [this offseason].’’

The Falcons plan to reduce Turner’s workload, which should help preserve his career after a bell-cow season in which he carried 376 times. Speedy Jerious Norwood (95 carries in 2008) is likely to pick up more of the slack.

As for Ryan, he’s spent a good portion of the offseason focusing on one aspect of quarterback play that is often overlooked.

“In terms of fundamentals, I think footwork was No. 1 for me this offseason,’’ he said. “You want to get to the point where it doesn’t break down toward the end of the season. I’m not saying it did [break down] last year, but that was my focus - to improve my footwork, and improve my movement within the pocket so I’m more accurate with the football. Being able to avoid the rush and the different things flying at you in the pocket - but still leaving yourself in good position to throw the football - is probably the most important thing.’’

In prioritizing that part of his game, Ryan has locked in on two of the game’s best quarterbacks.

“You don’t have to go further than the two guys who I think are at the top - [Tom] Brady and [Peyton] Manning,’’ he said. “You watch those guys do what they do - they do it a little differently - but at the end of the day their feet are in the same position when they’re getting ready to deliver the ball. I’ve been really working on myself, but in order to do that, I think you need to look at what some other people do well.’’

Drawing on many memories

With the Patriots planning a season-long celebration of their 50th anniversary, which includes four games in which the team will wear throwback jerseys and its Pat Patriot logo, sports cartoonist Phil Bissell responded with flair last week when asked about the return of his creation.

“It’s been like a rebirth,’’ the 83-year-old Bissell said from his home in Rockport. “Pat will never die!’’

As part of this year’s celebration, Bissell has produced drawings for all home program covers, in addition to the front of the team’s media guide, which shows Pat Patriot blowing out candles on a football that reads, “Happy 50th anniversary,’’ with three Super Bowl trophies in the background. He began the work in 2007.

Last week, Bissell recalled how Pat Patriot was initially born. He was working at the Globe at the time.

“They had a contest, by the fans, to see what the name of the new team should be and the name came out the Boston Patriots. [Sports editor] Jerry Nason came over to me and said, ‘For tomorrow’s cartoon, draw something about what Pat is going to look like in cartoons in the future.’ That’s how the idea started,’’ Bissell said.

“I knew he had to have the uniform on, but then I said, ‘This guy is going to get down in a three-point stance and get dirty. He’s going to get in there and mix it up.’ Like I said in the cartoon, he’s going to make some history around here. And he has.’’

Bissell, who earned $25 for the cartoon, wasn’t aware that Nason later took his work to Patriots owner Billy Sullivan, with Sullivan deciding that it would become the team’s official logo.

Bissell said the return of Pat has been uplifting, especially since he’s shared it with his two sons.

“Being put back in the lineup, it’s been a lot of fun,’’ Bissell said. “Pat is still making a lot of headway, you still see him on the back end of cars and trucks. It’s nice to see the old Pat still alive and kicking after 50 years.’’

Fassel anticipates UFL being a giant success

A field goal’s worth of questions for Jim Fassel, the former Giants coach who is one of four head coaches in the United Football League, which opens its first season in October:

It was announced that former Bills quarterback J.P. Losman has signed with your Las Vegas team. What are your thoughts on Losman being the face of the team and the UFL at this point?

JF: “I think it gives a lot of credibility. He’s had opportunities to sign in the NFL [as a backup] but he wants to go play, and wants to start. In my opinion the guy is a starter in the NFL. He said he might have to take a step back to reestablish himself and get in the groove. I think it also shows that there are a lot of good football players out there and fans are going to see a lot of quality and talent on the field.’’

What are some of the ways that being a head coach in the UFL are similar and different from your time as a head coach in the NFL?

JF: “The things that are similar, it’s a total organization. It’s a large management job from the standpoint of putting a staff together, to organizing everybody, to laying out our practice schedules and those types of things. As for things that aren’t the same, one is the demands from the media. There are fewer press conferences, and it’s more of a personal, one-on-one thing. Another is that we don’t have a personnel department, or other departments - we kind of do it all ourselves. When we make rules, it’s the commissioner and the four coaches, so it’s an easy vote. It’s really been fun.’’

What are some aspects about the UFL that fans might not be aware of that you think will help it be successful?

JF: “There will be some slight changes to the rules - for example, celebrations will be allowed as long as they aren’t demeaning to the other team - but the first thing is that it’s going to be a normal football game. We’re not going to have the wacky stuff that the XFL had, and it’s not the Arena League or the Canadian League. It’s pretty much mainstream NFL, college football-type rules. I’m thoroughly convinced it’s going to work because the league has a sound plan. You look at the history of things and see Kurt Warner, an MVP and Super Bowl quarterback, who at one point could barely make it into the league. I remember David Patten, who played for me [in New York] and up there with the Patriots, and he was another guy who couldn’t get a tryout at one point. So this league provides an opportunity for players like that.’’

Etc.

First and five
Five nuggets culled from chatter around the NFL: 1. Former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel and his wife have sold their home in Sharon, where the couple lived during Cassel’s four seasons in New England. Cassel, who said the town was the right fit because it was “quiet and nice,’’ has yet to purchase a home in Kansas City; 2. One name to file away as a Comeback Player of the Year candidate: Lions linebacker Ernie Sims, a 2006 first-round pick who after a strong spring looks like he’ll benefit most from the new Jim Schwartz regime; 3. After meeting with Michael Vick last week, commissioner Roger Goodell could rule on a possible suspension for Vick as early as this week; 4. Vikings rookies and veterans report for training camp Thursday, which means, at last, the Brett Favre saga should have a resolution in the coming days; 5. Thoughts and prayers go out to Jim Johnson, the longtime Eagles defensive coordinator who is on leave as he battles cancer.

Feeling a draft
With the NFL expanding the draft from two days to three - with Round 1 Thursday; Rounds 2-3 Friday; and Rounds 4-7 Saturday - the top picks in the second and fourth rounds now have more trade value because they are the first selections on Days 2 and 3. “It’s a great thing to have because you have a night to catch your breath and kind of take an overview of the board,’’ former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi wrote in an e-mail. “I only had the first pick on the second day once and we got a bunch of offers for that pick. The new format makes that first pick on the third day a little bit of a gem.’’ Under the draft’s prior format - with Rounds 1-2 Saturday and 3-7 on Sunday - it was the top pick of the third round that had added trade value. This year held true to form with the Jets trading up to select running back Shonn Greene.

Replacement part
The Steelers are one of the NFL’s best franchises at drafting and developing talent, which has helped them absorb free agent defections and remain competitive. If the team’s success in that area is to continue, 2007 fifth-round draft choice William Gay must step to the fore at cornerback. The Steelers are high on Gay, who projects to replace Bryant McFadden (Cardinals).

Putting in their miles
The Jets are holding training camp in three locations - SUNY-Cortland, Hofstra University, and their new headquarters in Florham Park, N.J., in what appears to be a decision that keeps their fan base happy. From a logistics standpoint, however, it seems fair to ask if the Jets will be as productive as they would in one location.

Bounce in his step
Matt Schaub has been a 66 percent passer since joining the Texans in 2007 - an impressive statistic - but such accuracy escaped him on the golf course at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe, Nev., last weekend. On the par-3 17th, Schaub’s errant tee shot hit a spectator on the top of the head. It turns out the spectator was OK, and Schaub - who autographed a golf ball as a show of sympathy - was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce onto the green that allowed him to two-putt for par.

Pages out of their book
Four statistics that catch the eye from the Patriots’ 2009 media guide: 1. Tom Brady enters 2009 with a 101-27 record in regular-season and playoff games, which is the best of any NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl era with at least 100 starts; 2. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bill Belichick is the only man in NFL history to serve 20 or more seasons as an assistant coach and at least 15 as a head coach; 3. Tedy Bruschi enters the 2009 season having played in 189 regular-season games since joining the Patriots in 1996. That is more than any other linebacker in team history and ranks third among all defensive players; 4. Running back Kevin Faulk enters the season as one of just six NFL players to total at least 2,000 rushing yards and at least 3,000 receiving yards since 2000. The others are Tiki Barber, Marshall Faulk, Michael Pittman, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Brian Westbrook.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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