NFC South: Brian VanGorter
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|As impressive as Matt Ryan's rookie season with the Falcons was, the second-year quarterback downplays it as just "a good start."|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Prepare yourself for the least-glowing review you'll ever hear about perhaps the best rookie season ever by an NFL quarterback.
While the rest of the world uses the word "great" or something more elaborate to describe last year, Ryan almost shreds it. He came to a team that was supposed to be the worst in the league, threw for a touchdown on his first pass and kept growing all the way to the playoffs.
An encore of that 11-5 season probably would be good enough for Atlanta fans every year. But that's not nearly good enough for Ryan. He truly believes last year was just a start.
"I learned a lot about a lot of different things and I think that will serve me well heading into this season," Ryan said.
That attitude and a whole bunch of other things are the reasons why there will be no "sophomore slump" for Ryan. He's only going to keep getting better. Here are five reasons why:
1. He's stronger. If you haven't seen Ryan for a while -- and the last time I saw him in person before today was after the playoff loss to Arizona in January -- he appears leaner.
"I've noticed that, too," Ryan said with a laugh.
He went on to explain that he's still carrying 220 pounds, but he's carrying it a little differently.
Ryan's spent the bulk of the past two months working very hard with the team's strength and conditioning staff. He's added muscle and said he's in much better physical condition than he was a year ago.
"My goal was to get a little stronger physically, a little tighter and just in better shape overall," Ryan said.
There were suggestions late last season that Ryan was hitting the traditional "rookie wall." He still disputes that, but admits he feels better now than he did at any point last year. But that might not be all about physical strength.
2. He's been through it before. While Ryan's been working his body, he's been resting his mind. That's a good thing because no matter what happens the rest of his career, Ryan's never going to face a more difficult situation than last year.
Drafted third overall, he instantly was asked to make Atlanta forget about the mess surrounding Michael Vick and the fiasco that was the Bobby Petrino coaching tenure in 2007. From the day he walked into Atlanta to the day the Falcons lost in the playoffs, Ryan had to be the face of a franchise under intense scrutiny. He seemed to handle it flawlessly, but Ryan admitted Friday he was ready for a break after last season ended.
"I took a little vacation and was down in the Virgin Islands for 10 days and kind of got lost on the beach for a little while, which was nice," Ryan said. "It's been so much more laid back than last year."
Ryan's a bit of a workaholic and is known for spending a lot of time studying film. After his vacation, he's gotten back into that routine, but also has managed to take a few trips back home to the Philadelphia area to visit family and friends.
There's a bit more balance in Ryan's life now. It's not like last season when he was learning a new offense and getting used to a new city. The coaching staff -- notably offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave -- has remained largely intact and the playbook hasn't changed. Neither has the roster.
3. The offense is better. Well, there is one significant change to the offensive roster. That's tight end Tony Gonzalez, acquired in trade with the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago.
"Any time you add a first-ballot future Hall of Famer to your team, you've gotten better," Ryan said.
Gonzalez has caught more passes than any tight end in history. The Falcons completed fewer passes to their tight ends than any team in the league last season. It's safe to look at what Atlanta's offense did in 2008 and say Gonzalez was the only missing link.
Just about everything else is back on offense and better than it was a year ago at this time. Receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins and running back Michael Turner all had breakout seasons. The offensive line, which seemed like it was overachieving early last year, is pretty much intact and should keep improving.
4. The defense will make Ryan better. Let's be real honest here. Despite a playoff run, Atlanta's defense wasn't all that good in 2008. Linebacker Keith Brooking, safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive tackle Grady Jackson were old and coach Mike Smith and coordinator Brian VanGorter squeezed every ounce of talent out of their defense.
The defense didn't always get off the field when it should have and Ryan and the offense had to pull out some games. But there have been huge changes on the defense and Smith and VanGorter now have their kind of players. They didn't have that luxury last year when they spent their early focus on offense, bringing in Ryan, Turner and left tackle Sam Baker. This year's offseason has been all about getting younger -- and better -- on defense with rookies Peria Jerry and William Moore as the top two draft picks.
5. Ryan is still Ryan. A few minutes after finishing my interview with the quarterback, I picked up a Falcons publication and read an interview with team owner Arthur Blank. He was asked about Ryan's future and made a comment about how he thinks it's important for the quarterback to keep his humility.
Blank, who went through hell with Vick, shouldn't have to worry about Ryan's humility. This guy is as grounded as they come and last year's success hasn't changed him a bit. Ryan was remarkably smooth on the field and off it last season. He still is the same guy.
After all, he might be the only guy in Atlanta humble enough not to get carried away with last season.
"You have to understand your role on the team," Ryan said. "As a quarterback, you have to be able to distribute the ball to the guys around you and try to put them in position to make plays. Fortunately, I think I've got some great guys out there who can make some plays. My focus has been on doing my job and not doing anything more or anything less -- just distribute the ball and put those guys in good positions."
Remember, that's only the start.