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|Matt Ryan (2) seems to be making a smooth adjustment from Boston College to NFL starting quarterback.|
There seemed to be some debate about how to rebuild. Many pundits thought LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was the smartest choice for Atlanta's first-round pick at third overall.But Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff had another idea. "There were a lot of people talking about Dorsey, and we think very highly of him, but we knew we wanted a QB, one with accuracy underneath, the ability to move in the pocket, and who also had off-the-field strengths," Dimitroff said. "To us, that was the difference." The Falcons made Ryan the first quarterback taken in the draft, and the richest, with a six-year, $72 million contract (including $34.75 million guaranteed). After the draft, Ryan immediately flew to Atlanta with his father, Mike, then bought a house and began acclimating. "That was very important to Matt, to be settled early on," Mike Ryan said. The fresh-faced Exton, Pa., native, who'd lived his entire life in the Northeast, soon found that he enjoyed Southern living. He particularly likes the fast-food chain Popeyes, which, along with pizza, are his self-professed weaknesses. His girlfriend, Sarah Marshall, a former BC basketball player, also moved to Atlanta, and she has become the resident cook for the two of them on weeknights. Much of Ryan's life is, he said, "pretty regular." On Saturdays, after driving to McDonald's to pick up breakfast sandwiches for himself and his fellow Falcons quarterbacks to enjoy during their morning meeting, he's back home by 11:30 to spend the day watching college football. He'll return to the facility that evening for a final round of meetings, then head home again.
On most weeknights, he'll watch film of the week's opponent or TV shows such as his new weeknight favorite, Fox's "Fringe," or he's spending time with friends and teammates."The way I act and the way I am is the same as other 23-year-olds," Ryan said. "I like to watch dumb reality TV or hang out with my friends. It's really no different."
Beyond the obvious changes in lifestyle, the big difference in his regimen is digesting a pro playbook. For Ryan, the 2004 recipient of Boston College's Mall Scholar-Athlete Award, learning playbook intricacies has been yet another seamless transition."When we got here and had spring ball for the first time, he had absorbed the playbook within a week," Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski said of Ryan. "He's very football-smart and also a really smart kid academically. He gets it." The highlight of Ryan's week off the field is catching the newest episode of HBO's "Entourage" on Sunday nights. If the team is traveling or playing the late game, he'll watch the reruns that air Friday evenings.
|Pennsylvania native Ryan, seen here at the Pro Football Hall Of Fame this past summer, is adjusting to Atlanta and developing a fondness for a certain fast-food outlet.|
--Veteran Falcons C Todd McClure on QB Matt Ryan's command of the huddle
"When he jumped into the huddle the first time and got our attention, everyone was kind of shocked, like, 'The rookie's talking to us like this,'" veteran center Todd McClure said. "But we respected him right away."On the first pass of his pro career, Ryan threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins. Ryan celebrates big plays in modest fashion, rushing to congratulate the receiver or ball carrier with an aerial chest bump. "He's got what it takes to get out there and make the big plays at the big times," backup quarterback Chris Redman said. "And he's humble. He gives everyone else credit and does things the right way." Ryan has learned lessons, in part, from Joey Harrington, who's currently the Saints' third-string quarterback. Harrington was with Atlanta last season and throughout training camp before being released. A former Oregon star quarterback, Harrington entered the league in 2002 as the Detroit Lions' top draft pick. Like Ryan, he was thrust into the starting role with much expectation; unlike Ryan, he finished the season 3-13 with a 59.9 passer rating. "[Harrington] gave me some advice, and his biggest thing was, don't try to do what others tell you. You have to keep true to what it is that got you here," Ryan said. "I didn't want to push my experiences on him, but I tried to help when he asked," Harrington said. "Matt is a great guy with a good head on his shoulders. At the same time, he still has that swagger and confidence that comes from being a star in college. You need that to be a successful QB in the NFL."
--Mike Ryan on his son Matt delivering the news that he had won the Falcons' starting job
When Ryan learned in late August that he would be the Falcons' starter, he called his father. "'I got the nod' -- that was all he said," Mike recalls. "I got off the phone and went nuts, but all he said were those words." Ryan has been consistently productive, totaling 2,159 yards (11th-best among NFL QBs) and an 87.8 passer rating (13th-best) through Week 11. His chemistry with receivers Jenkins and Roddy White as well as with running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood has resulted in 11 touchdown passes. In 283 pass attempts, Ryan has thrown just six interceptions.
|Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan (2) and veteran receiver Roddy White (84) already have become a deadly combination.|
|Matt Ryan's jersey is beginning to become a popular sight.|
"This town wants someone to rally behind, and he's going to be the guy if he keeps playing like he's been playing," McClure said.Said Milloy: "As each week goes by, you realize that this guy is for real." Although Ryan might be a favorite to be named rookie of the year, there are moments when he can remain incognito, even in Atlanta. Wide receiver Brian Finneran tells the story of a preseason auto accident involving himself, Ryan (who was driving) and Shockley. "We were sitting at a light, it was raining and wet out, and this knucklehead came around the corner too fast and skidded into us. Matt took it like he would anything else, just called the cops and filed a report," Finneran recalled. "But the guy who hit us didn't realize who we were. He kept asking, 'Are you guys going to the gym?' since we're all fairly big and in our workout gear. We laughed and said, 'Yeah, we're going to the gym,' until we finally told him who we were." One place you won't find Ryan is the Web-networking phenomenon Facebook -- at least, not anymore. "Our junior year, when he was starting to be known as a good player, he was on Facebook," Poles said. "But 90 percent of his friends' list was male. There were hardly any girls. We used to rip him apart for that -- here's one of the top QBs in college, and almost all his friends were guys. That's why he's no longer on there." When the offseason rolls around, Ryan said he'll be ready to catch up on sleep. He'll also devote some days to golf (he often plays in a foursome with his dad and two brothers), spend time at the beach with his family and watch his other favorite sport, basketball. "In college, I don't know if I should say this, but we used to skip class to watch some of the March Madness games," Ryan said. "Now I'll be able to watch all of them. I'm so excited about that, and catching some [Atlanta] Hawks games as well." Until then, he's focused on doing something that would have seemed virtually impossible even in a video game world -- making the Falcons unlikely playoff contenders. "I want to be around here a long time, with this team, go to the playoffs and hopefully win a championship," Ryan said. Even as the acclaim and recognition mounts for Ryan, there's little chance that fame will go to his head.
"Nothing is taken for granted, and there's no sense of entitlement," Mike Ryan said of his son. "He understands that what has happened is a gift, and I'm proud of that."
Anna K. Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and contributes to ESPN.com.