Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
There is a very interesting situation playing out in Atlanta right now. The Falcons know Matt Ryan is their quarterback of the future, but they don't know if he's the quarterback of the present.
Just about a month away from their first regular-season game, the Falcons are no closer than they were on the day they drafted Ryan with the third overall pick to making a decision on whether he will start immediately. I sat down with coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff at their camp in Flowery Branch, Ga., and spoke with them at length about what will be one of the most critical decisions of their tenure.
"The thing that we have to do is come to an agreement about how we want to sequence this throughout the preseason," Smith said. "Each of our quarterbacks will have an opportunity to work with the first unit and to work against the starting defense. We're trying to be pretty open-minded. We feel it will clarify itself in terms of who we feel is the best quarterback. We've said from Day One that the best guy is going to play. But those dynamics are going to change throughout the entire season."
The Falcons have been spreading the work among Ryan, Chris Redman, Joey Harrington and D.J. Shockley throughout camp. But this really will come down to a decision between opening the season with Redman, who has NFL experience, or Ryan, who obviously doesn't.
"At the outset of drafting Matt Ryan, our stance has been to throw it out to competition and let that decide it," Dimitroff said. "Mike has always said the best player on Day One will start at every position. Whoever is in the best position to help us win on Day One will be playing."
Smith and Dimitroff are confident the situation will sort itself out and they're extremely pleased with Ryan's progress so far. But they also realize this decision could have long-lasting implications on Ryan's career. They know it's never easy for a rookie quarterback to play right away and they're painfully aware of the histories of guys such as David Carr and Tim Couch, who were thrown into playing for bad teams immediately.
"I think you always have to look at the history," Smith said. "But you also have to take the information from what you see and what your gut tells you and what your coaching staff tells you. We've got a great staff with [offensive coordinator] Mike Mularkey, who's been a head coach and [assistant head coach] Emmitt Thomas, who's been around the league for a long time. We'll listen to all that and make a decision on what's going to be best for our football team and what's going to be best for Matt."
Coming off a 4-12 season, the Falcons cleaned house, getting rid of veterans like Alge Crumpler and Warrick Dunn. Their roster is very young and many experts say they're in for a long season. Even if Ryan looks great throughout camp and the preseason, the Falcons have to be cautious about playing him too soon.
"I've always felt strongly about making sure you have some tools on that offense to take some of that pressure off a new quarterback," Dimitroff said. "You've got to have a good offensive line, good receiving corps and an accomplished running attack. If you have those pieces together, I think you have a solid chance of moving forward with a rookie quarterback at the helm."
Atlanta has some pieces in place. The Falcons signed Michael Turner, the top running back in this year's class of free agents. They drafted offensive tackle Sam Baker in the first round and they have the nucleus of a decent receiving corps with Roddy White and Laurent Robinson.
Still, this roster is a work in progress and there has to be some temptation to sit Ryan for a little bit and let Redman open the season. But Smith and Dimitroff are keeping all their options open for Ryan.
"You think about it and we know the history," Dimitroff said. "We know the players who haven't worked out at that position and you keep that in the back of your mind. But if that player is the right person, you go forward and you don't hesitate. I'm a firm believer in 'let's go after it.'"