Thursday, May 1, 2008
Ryan timetable should be based on logic, not emotion
By Pat Yasinskas ESPN.com
The Falcons have a lot to consider when it comes to mapping out a plan for No. 3 pick Matt Ryan.
For the moment, Matt Ryan has done his part.
By putting together a sparkling résumé at Boston College, he gave the Atlanta Falcons and their fans what they needed most: something to get excited about. On the team Web site, the Falcons are plastering Ryan's picture all over their ads for season tickets and promoting sales of his No. 2 jersey.
Now, it's time for the Falcons to do their part. They got the best quarterback in the NFL draft -- some will tell you he's the best in the past few years -- and the challenge the Falcons face now is not messing up Ryan.
This is where things could get dicey for first-time head coach Mike Smith and first-time general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Some time between now and the season opener against Detroit, they have to decide whether they're going to throw Ryan to the Lions.
"When we were in Boston visiting with Matt in our private workout, I talked to him about his thoughts on playing early," Smith said. "Matt gave me the right answer. He said, 'Coach, I want to come, compete and I want to be your starter.' That's the attitude we want to have at all of our positions, not just Matt Ryan."
Problem is the Falcons don't have a lot of talent at all their other positions and that means starting Ryan from day one could do the quarterback and the franchise a lot more harm than good. It's always a tough call on deciding whether to start a rookie quarterback, and it becomes even tougher when your alternatives are Chris Redman and Joey Harrington.
"If Matt Ryan, [USC tackle] Sam Baker or [Oklahoma linebacker] Curtis Lofton are the best players at their positions when we get ready to open the season, then they will be the guys that we're going to play," Smith said.
"[Ryan] is very savvy and his presence on the field will be felt immediately," Dimitroff said.
Sounds like the Falcons are very serious about starting Ryan from the start. Even if he's as good and as polished as advertised, that could be a serious mistake. There are plenty of cautionary tales to point to, but let's take the case of Dom Capers, Charlie Casserly and David Carr because it might be the most similar situation.
Capers was the coach and Casserly was the general manager of the expansion Houston Texans in 2002 (and that roster was comparable to what the Falcons have now). Wanting a face for the franchise, Capers and Casserly settled on Carr, a quarterback from Fresno State, with the No. 1 overall pick. The scouting reports all said Carr had the physical skills, the mental makeup and the calm and cool to handle the situation, and the Texans decided it made sense to start Carr from the beginning.
There was one big problem with that logic: Capers and Casserly forgot to put an offensive line in front of him.
Carr got sacked more times than any quarterback in NFL history in his rookie season and it didn't get much better in the four years that followed. That's why Capers and Casserly got fired and Carr was released after the 2006 season. He landed as a much-hyped backup in Carolina and got thrown into the starting job after Jake Delhomme went down with an elbow injury. But it quickly became obvious Carr still was dealing with one of the worst cases of shell shock the NFL has ever seen. Teammates and coaches lost faith in him and the Panthers cut Carr after last season.
He's probably down to his last NFL chance after signing as a backup with the New York Giants. The last thing Dimitroff and Smith want is for Ryan to follow a career path anything like Carr's. If Ryan fails, so do the Falcons, Dimitroff and Smith.
That's why they might want to consider hitting the brakes on their enthusiasm about Ryan just a little bit. Not every rookie quarterback is going to be like Dan Marino and take to the starting job like a dolphin to water.
Maybe the biggest favor the Falcons can do Ryan -- maybe even what they owe him -- is to sit him for a bit. We're not talking about something similar to how San Diego let Philip Rivers sit for almost two full seasons. The Chargers had Drew Brees, a luxury the Falcons don't.
But let Harrington or Redman open the season as the starter. Let them take the lumps as Baker adjusts to playing left tackle in the NFL and see if free-agent pickup Michael Turner can establish himself as a consistent threat in the running game.
Let Ryan soak things up on the sidelines and in the film room for just a bit (Atlanta's bye is Oct. 19, and the game after that might be the perfect time to turn to Ryan if the Falcons open the year slowly). But, as much as the Falcons would like to win quickly and win with Ryan, there's really no huge rush.
There are big expectations for Ryan, but those are for the long term. If nothing else, Atlanta fans might be more patient than any other fans in the league right now. After what happened last year, they've got lower immediate expectations than any other fan base in the league.
At least Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino left a legacy with the Falcons: They've lowered the bar so much that the Falcons don't need Ryan to jump over it until he's ready.
Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com