Atlanta's Matt Ryan won't back down
By Ashley Fox
Once the regular season starts, Matt Ryan vanishes from Twitter. He doesn't post anything. He doesn't read his mentions. He doesn't lurk.
Last year, that was a wise thing. The Twitterverse can be vicious, and Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons gave it plenty of ammunition. A 4-12 record can spawn a lot of hate.
"I imagine it would have been really complimentary, judging how Twitter goes," Ryan said sarcastically.
But the 29-year-old Ryan is committed to proving that 2013 was an anomaly to a career that had produced an average of 11.2 wins over the five previous seasons, the most prosperous stretch in Falcons history. Ryan wants to get Atlanta back to the playoffs and to win in his seventh season what Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson won in his second: a Super Bowl championship.
Matt Ryan will be asked to assume a larger leadership role now that tight end Tony Gonzalez is retired.
That would end the speculation. That would end the debate. That would close the gap between being thisclose and being elite.
Winning it all has always been the goal.
"In order to be the best of the best, it's about winning Super Bowls," Ryan said. "And I haven't shied away from that. I feel I'm capable of doing it, and I'm the player that's going to get it done, but it hasn't happened up until this point. Certainly, I'm hell bent on trying to make that happen."
But Ryan can't do it alone.
There were a slew of issues that led to the Falcons floundering last season one year after falling a mere 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl. Injuries started early, mounted quickly and affected key contributors, including wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, left tackle Sam Baker, defensive end Kroy Biermann, defensive tackle Corey Peters, inside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and running back Steven Jackson.
The offensive line did not adequately protect Ryan. The defensive line did not generate an effective pass rush. While Ryan had the second-best completion percentage and second-highest yardage total of his career, he was sacked a career-high 44 times and threw a career-worst 17 interceptions.
For the first time since drafting Ryan third overall in 2008, the Falcons finished with a losing record and for the second time didn't make the playoffs.
Shortly after the season, an ESPN The Magazine story on Tony Gonzalez quoted the future Hall of Fame tight end, who played with Ryan for five seasons, as saying that Ryan is "not elite" but was "this close" to being so. Ryan has a huge contract and gaudy statistics but a 1-4 postseason record.
The criticism, if you call it that, was warranted but blown out of proportion.
"Tony called me right after," Ryan said. "I think Tony was a lot more pissed about it than I was. He's one of my best friends, not only on the team but in general. We grew really, really close, and he was like, 'You know how I feel about you and what I think about you professionally as a player,' and I don't think he said anything that bad."
When you go from being a Super Bowl favorite to 4-12, those things happen.
Ryan is committed to getting the Falcons back to the playoffs this season, and he believes, despite last season, that they have the talent on both sides of the ball to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2014. He said the Falcons' locker room never fractured under the duress of last season.
"I think certainly last season has made all of us tougher and all of us probably a little bit hungrier," Ryan said. "The year before, we were close to where we wanted to go. Last year, we were nowhere near where we want to be. Everybody has used the disappointments of last season as motivation for this season."
Turning things around depends, of course, on Atlanta getting and then remaining healthy. Jones and Baker are not participating in organized team activities, although they should be ready by training camp. White has missed time for personal reasons. But on Tuesday, Weatherspoon tore his Achilles tendon; he will miss the 2014 season.
Ryan has grown into more of a leadership role than he has ever had in Atlanta. With Gonzalez retired and White and Jones out, Ryan has had to teach the Falcons offense to the younger wide receivers and tight ends. Ryan has tried to remember what his offensive coordinator at Boston College, Dana Bible, used to tell him: "It doesn't matter how fast you see things, because you still have to play with the other 10 guys around you. If you're the only one who sees it that way, it doesn't do us any good."
Said Ryan: "With veteran guys, you find that you talk about things [in meetings], and [what you talked about] ends up happening on the practice field. With younger guys, that's not always the case. ... It has certainly improved my patience, and as a whole it will benefit our team if those guys can go out and perform."
Even so, Ryan will need to take on an even greater leadership role with Weatherspoon out. Weatherspoon was the Falcons' leader. Now that responsibility will likely fall to Ryan and a combination of White and at least one defensive player.
Ultimately, the Falcons' fortunes will be up to Ryan and his veteran teammates. Ryan wants to prove he belongs among the elite quarterbacks in the game, and he knows at this point there is only one way to do that: win a Super Bowl.
"It's on to next season," Ryan said. "Hopefully we can be the one getting that done this year."