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Has the (Matty) Ice Age ended?

11/15/2009
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Ice Age, which forecasters had thought would last another decade or so, suddenly seems to be in jeopardy.

Did you see Matt Ryan at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, looking nervous every time a pass-rusher got near him? Did you see how the ball sailed on Ryan’s two interceptions? Did you see how his passer rating (57.4) compared to Jake Delhomme’s (115.8)?

Yes, at least on Sunday -- and too many times in recent weeks -- Matty Ice seemed to have thawed out and turned into a puddle. Hard to believe the kid who never got flustered and never made a bad throw or bad decision as a rookie suddenly is making a strong run at Delhomme’s interception total.

I’ve avoided jumping into talk of a sophomore slump, mainly because, based on what I saw last year, I thought Ryan was way too good for anything like that. Now, I at least have to wonder why, for most of the past month, Ryan hasn’t looked anything like the player he was a year ago.

Throw out last week’s win against a horrible Washington team and Ryan wouldn’t have completed more than 57.6 percent of his passes in any game since Oct. 11. On that date, the Falcons went out to San Francisco and trounced the 49ers, 45-10. In the five games since, Ryan has thrown 10 interceptions and seven touchdowns as the Falcons have gone 2-3.

So what’s so different about this season?

“You’ve got to remember this is Year 2,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “Playing quarterback in this league is one of the most difficult jobs that there is. There are going to be ups and there are going to be downs. There’s confidence in our quarterback.’’

I won’t argue with the confidence issue. I still think that, when all is said and done, Ryan will go down in history as a great quarterback. But he’s not there right now and that’s a huge concern as the 5-4 Falcons head into a brutal final stretch.

Running back Michael Turner suffered an ankle injury Sunday and had to leave the game before halftime. It’s likely he’s going to miss some time, maybe even a lot of time. They’ve got a defense that gives up too many yards and too many points. They’ve also got a brutal schedule ahead.

More than ever, the Falcons need Ryan to carry them. More than ever, they need him to take the step that should come when you move from Year 1 to Year 2.

But all we’ve seen of Ryan since he started the season with only one interception in his first four games is a quarterback taking several steps back.

“Different things come up week in and week out,’’ Ryan said. “I’m young. I’ve got a long way to go and a lot of improving to do and a lot of things to learn. And I do think you learn a lot more in your second season than you do in your first. I feel like I am continuing to get better and continuing to learn, trying to soak up everything I can from Year 1, from Year 2. I feel like, if I do that and do it the best way I can, I will be a better player for it.’’

Ryan has to start being a better player very soon or else all he and the Falcons will have to look forward to is Year 3. For the Falcons to have any shot at making the playoffs, they need Ryan to be a lot better than he has been recently.

“I thought that Matt’s play was just like our entire football team,’’ Smith said.

The problem there is Ryan’s got to be better than the entire team because there are problems all over the rest of the horizon. But what’s to make us think Ryan can suddenly turn it around?

Well, that’s really the only shot the Falcons have. The defense isn’t going to instantly get better, and it’s hard to imagine the running game improving when the leading rusher is walking around with his ankle in a boot.

It’s time for the Falcons to do everything they can to put Ryan into positions where he can succeed, and it’s up to Ryan to make sure he succeeds. He’s got a talented cast around him and there’s no doubt Ryan’s heart is in the right place. His work ethic is the stuff of legend around the team’s Flowery Branch complex. He’s the first one in and the last one out most days.

But we just haven’t seen the same kind of magic from Ryan that we did last season. That’s surprising because the Falcons went out of their way to make his life easier. They brought in Tony Gonzalez, the best tight end ever. There’s no questioning that move because Ryan and Gonzalez jelled right away and they have a strong chemistry.

But I can’t help but wonder if Gonzalez’s arrival, in a weird way, has actually hurt Ryan’s progress. One thing I’ve noticed in recent weeks is that Ryan seems almost too reliant on Gonzalez. He locks in on the tight end way too much and it seems at times like the Falcons have forgotten they’ve got a Pro Bowl receiver in Roddy White and another pretty good one in Michael Jenkins.

A lot of times last year, it looked like Ryan would take a shot and throw into coverage, but White or Jenkins almost always seemed to come away with the ball. That hasn’t happened a lot this season. When you see White or Jenkins being thrown a pass these days, it’s almost always only when they are wide open.

Speaking of White, I’m reminded of a story he shared after the big win in San Francisco. That day, White had 210 receiving yards after starting the season in a very slow fashion. White had signed a new contract in training camp and later realized that made him feel pressure. He sat down with Smith just before the San Francisco game and the message from the coach to the wide receiver was something like, “Relax, just go out and have fun and play like you did last year.’’

Maybe it’s time for Smith to have the same conversation with Ryan.