MVP front-runner learns to let go

Matt Ryan on the art of playoff quarterbacking

Originally Published: November 28, 2012
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 10 Interview issue. Subscribe today!

SETH WICKERSHAM: What did you do after the wild-card game last year when you lost 24-2 to the Giants?
MATT RYAN: It took some time. Afterward, you're frustrated, you're disappointed. You go home that night and you're just pissed. So the next day, I went in and watched the game. The thing that sticks out is that it wasn't our best performance, but it still came down to four or five plays that we didn't execute as well as we would have liked to. That re-emphasized that we're close, that if we can just tighten up things a little bit, you never know what can happen. And that's the thing that jump-started my offseason.

WICKERSHAM: What was the best piece of advice you got after losing that game?
RYAN: My dad was waiting outside the stadium in a tent area that had been set up for players' families. He was the first person I saw, so I got to talk to him for three or four minutes. He told me to keep my head up. It sounds simple, but there's something about your dad telling you just to keep your head up after those tough situations. It feels good whether you're 10 years old coming off the field or you're 27 coming off the field.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Matt Hoyle for ESPN The Magazine"Sometimes I want to improve so much that I concentrate on the negatives," Ryan says.

WICKERSHAM: Last year you said: "There's something to be said for being motivated and driven. There is also something to be said for being able to let things go. It's a constant battle." So how are you doing in that regard?
RYAN: I think good. Playing alongside a guy like Tony Gonzalez has been big for me. He's one of the greatest tight ends who has ever played the game and is incredibly dedicated to be the absolute best. But he also understands that he's going to make mistakes and that you can't let those mistakes consume you. Sometimes I want to improve so much that I concentrate on those negatives and trying to improve those negatives. But it's about letting those negatives go sometimes too and just trusting in the positive things you have within yourself.

WICKERSHAM: What's an example from this season in which you handled a situation differently than you would have last year?
RYAN: A perfect example is the Raiders game [Week 6], where I had three turnovers in the first half. That's going to happen. Somehow we hung around, we stayed in the game, and I played a much better second half. It's just being able to go in at halftime and have the maturity to say, "All right, that's a bad half of football, but I know I'm capable of better things." I relaxed, went out and played well in the second half and ultimately came up with a fourth-quarter comeback.

WICKERSHAM: You scrutinize yourself on video quite a bit. Tell me the small ways that only you would notice that make you better this year than last year.
RYAN: Last year I had a number of turnovers and interceptions on the drives right before halftime. And if you look at the stats of teams that score points right before the half, there's some kind of crazy correlation to them and winning games. This year I've been much better in those situations. Before the half I've been accurate with the football but also smart with it, and I haven't turned the ball over in those situations.

WICKERSHAM: What's the most important quality that a successful quarterback has to have?
RYAN: First and foremost, you've got to be a sound decision maker. And I think part of that is balancing being aggressive and knowing when to pull back. That's the art of playing quarterback -- knowing when to take chances but also knowing when to put the reins on it.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Pouya Dianat/AP PhotosThrough Week 11, Ryan had 21 game-winning drives.

WICKERSHAM: You've talked about how important nonverbal communication with your teammates has been for you. What's a good example of that?
RYAN: In the preseason, I forget who we were playing, but we had a rep where Roddy White and I had to adjust our route because of pressure. I didn't even have a chance to look at him. But going to the back side, I knew he would be on the same page as me because we've done this. He ran a fade route instead of a slant, and I hit him for like a 25-yard gain. We were on the same page, and that's huge. And it only comes from playing with each other for a long time.

WICKERSHAM: Your wife, Sarah, played basketball at Boston College. What does it mean to have a spouse who was an athlete at a high level?
RYAN: It's huge. She understands the level of commitment that it takes and what high-level athletics does to your personality too. There are going to be times when I'm frustrated with things at work. I try not to take that home, but it's hard to separate the two, and I think she gets that. I think she also gets where the competitiveness comes from. She's definitely more competitive than me and probably the better athlete. She understands everything you put into it and the disappointment and frustration that go along with it. And I'm lucky that she does.

WICKERSHAM: What have you learned about the art of playoff quarterbacking?
RYAN: The biggest thing is, you have to make the plays when they present themselves. You're not going to be perfect; you're going to make mistakes. But if you keep yourself in the game, when you have an opportunity on third downs to extend drives or in the red zone, you have to make plays. The margin for error in the playoffs is much smaller than it is during the regular season. Hopefully we can continue to play well this season and give ourselves another opportunity to get there. And hopefully play better this time.

Seth Wickersham interviewed Matt Ryan on Nov. 7, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.