Yeah, I love Julio Jones and I do think he's been a great leader for this team, but Julio follows Ryan, not the other way around.
Matt Ryan has been a leader since he stepped foot in the building. That isn't going to change.
I became a fan after watching them get slaughtered by SF...after a 50 point loss and no fans in the stadium, sympathy kicked in and I thought “wow, those guys look like they could use some support”...the rest is history...and torment!
MMQB: How Matt Ryan Came Out of an Uncertain Offseason in a Good Place
When the Falcons' quarterback found out his replacement hadn't been drafted, he'd already put in the work to start this new phase of his career. Plus, Phase III of offseason workouts begin, how the Russell Wilson drama settled down and much more.
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In one way, the Falcons’ new bosses were very transparent with Matt Ryan ahead of April 29, telling the 13-year vet that they’d look at all positions—quarterback included—with the fourth pick in the draft.
In another way, they really weren’t. Coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot were front-and-center at pro days for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones (and brought offensive coordinator Dave Ragone with them), and did all the same work the Jaguars, Jets, Niners, Bears and Patriots did before taking those quarterbacks in the first round.
The idea, of course, was for the Falcons to know exactly what they were passing on if they chose not to take one of those guys at No. 4. And if a nice byproduct for Smith and Fontenot was keeping the rest of the league in the dark, well, then it worked on Ryan too. Because he didn’t have any more of an idea what was written on Atlanta’s card when it was turned in around 9 p.m. ET than anyone else watching at home.
“When the pick went in, that was the big [moment],” Ryan said the other day, over the phone. “To the organization’s credit, they were very up-front about that from the start—Hey, we’re gonna pick whoever we think is the best person to help us moving forward. And they said they had a lot of belief and all those things, but they were up-front from the start about that. So I knew when Kyle got drafted that Kyle got drafted.”
Kyle, of course, is Kyle Pitts, the freaky tight end the Falcons took to help Ryan—rather than selecting someone meant to replace him. He was the first nonquarterback to get picked and, as you’d expect, the pick brought a mixture of excitement and relief to the Ryan living room, and maybe even more so from other family members than the erstwhile Atlanta quarterback himself.
“I was fired up!” Ryan said, with his voice rising. “I mean, I watched this guy play through college, so it was like, Oh, alright, let’s go! I was watching it with my wife, and I think she was probably more fired up than me.”
That Ryan’s wife got a chance to exhale in a “we probably won’t have to move soon now” sort of way is totally understandable.
That said, to be fair, it would also be understandable if Ryan had taken any of this personally. Everyone would get it if he was a little put off by seeing the Falcons’ open flirtations with quarterbacks 14 and 15 years his junior. No one would be surprised if, over the last three months, with all this happening, Ryan started to eye the exit, because we’ve seen that from so many other quarterbacks the last six months.
But Ryan’s approach to the whole thing was just different. And he’s excited now coming out of all of it, and thinking that the new guys in charge who told him what they were doing, while not really telling him what they were doing, have a good shot to set him up for another run of title shots with his career hitting the fourth quarter.
We’re inching closer to real football—organized team activities (or OTAs) start this week, which traditionally has meant, really, the start of football practice for NFL players. This year will definitely look a little different, and we’re covering all that in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• A team-by-team look at work conditions players have negotiated with their coaches.
• A Russell Wilson reset.
• The next big coaching prize in the college ranks for the NFL.
And we’ll have a bunch of guys to watch in the coming weeks, too. But we’re starting in Atlanta, where the organization set a new course the last five months—one that now has a 36-year-old quarterback squarely in the middle of it.
Really, the story of Ryan’s offseason starts with who he is. His play’s been steady as things have come undone around him over the last three years (at least 65% as a passer, a 90-plus QB rating, 4,400-plus yards and 26-plus touchdown passes in each season). He just turned 36, which is old for an NFL player but not ancient for a quarterback. He was the league MVP and in the Super Bowl five seasons ago.
So as the Falcons underwent the most significant change of Ryan’s career—essentially blowing up their football operation and starting over—it would’ve been no shocker to see him start to get wandering eyes or distance himself from the new bosses. Throwing the fourth pick into the equation only added a layer of intrigue to that, in effect giving Smith and Fontenot an escape hatch from the Ryan era if they wanted to push the button on it.
We’ve seen it, of late. Whether it was Deshaun Watson’s being disgruntled over the Texans’ organizational instability; Aaron Rodgers’ being turned off by the Packers’ drafting Jordan Love and continuing to build methodically; or Russell Wilson’s pushing for better protection, a better scheme, and a bigger voice in team decision-making, there’s no question dynamics are changing at the sport’s most important position.
And this isn’t to take away from how those guys are approaching their own situations. Ryan himself certainly didn’t when we talked. But the way he handled his own choppy waters was decidedly different.
“Most guys deal with this,” Ryan said. “It gets made a really big deal at the quarterback position. But most players are dealing with this every year, right? Everybody deals with this at times. We don’t get hired to get to retired. They hire you and then fire you. They keep moving on. You just gotta stay in that space of, I’m gonna get myself ready to go, regardless of what happens. I’m gonna make sure I’m giving myself every opportunity to be the best player that I can be.”
Which doesn’t mean Ryan didn’t hear the speculation about his job security—from the time before Smith and Fontenot were hired, when the question was whether Ryan would be in Atlanta at all, to after their hires, when the question shifted to whether those two would draft his replacement and put him on the clock.
“Of course, you hear everything,” Ryan continued. “It’s become impossible to isolate yourself. It was much easier in 2008, ’09 to do it. It’s really impossible now, so you hear everything. I think just learning how to care less about that stuff, about what’s constantly being talked about, is a skill that I’ve kind of acquired as I’ve gotten older. I try and never search for it when it’s good and never search for it when it’s bad, because either way, it distracts you from focusing on what you need to focus on, just staying in the right mindset.
“My thing was, regardless of who they draft, I’ve got to get myself ready to go play this coming year. And I’m under contract to this organization for the next three years, and they’re going to get the absolute best out of me during that time. It doesn’t matter who they bring in, it’s not going to change that approach. So just stay in that lane, stay in that space, and try and get yourself ready to go.”
Now, Ryan doesn’t just get the reward of adding Pitts. His approach, in keeping the chains moving through the 2021 season, also gives him a heck of a head start off where he might’ve been otherwise.
To their credit, while Smith and Fontenot wouldn’t make Ryan promises on who they were taking fourth, the two new guys in charge weren’t shying away from building the foundation of a relationship with the former MVP. Fontenot, for example, made a point of showing up at a ribbon-cutting event for the new hospital on the team’s Flowery Branch property, because he knew he’d get quality face time with Ryan there. Smith went and got dinner with his new quarterback a few times.
Through those summits, Ryan got to learn a bunch about the direction that the rebuild was going. Over time, he found himself increasingly bought in. And with time, he got more and more work done on his own.
“The biggest thing was spending the last three months trying to learn the system, as much as I could,” Ryan said. “Trying to get ahead of it, so when we get to this time of year, and we’re having guys on the field and we’re able to spend time together, I could be speaking the language that coaches will want me to speak. I think that’s probably the thing that’s most different, just how much time I’ve spent on that.
“When you’re in the same system and you’re going through it with the same staff, you get quite a bit more of a break to recharge. That’s really how it’s been spent, getting on top of the playbook, making sure my body is in a really good space, which is what I’d be doing this time of the year anyhow. But just more time spent on learning the system.”
Through that process, Ryan’s found concrete reasons for optimism.
There’s carryover from his MVP season. Ryan’s greatest success as a pro came under ex-Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The quarterbacks coach under Shanahan the two years Ryan and Shanahan were together was Matt LaFleur. LaFleur was then the offensive coordinator in Tennessee in 2018, in Mike Vrabel’s first year there, and put in the system that Smith took over there when he was promoted from tight ends coach to replace LaFleur, when LaFleur became the Packers’ head coach.
The first place that adds up is in Smith’s evaluation of Ryan—the coach can easily see what he’s looking at in the system, because it’s a system he effectively ran the last two years.
“One-hundred percent. One-hundred percent,” Ryan said. “He already talks in that manner of, Hey, we’re installing this, we used to teach off your cutups from back then there, but we’re going to teach off this that we used the last two years, but really it’s that same thing. And you’re like, O.K., alright, cool, perfect, we can move on to the next one, I know that one. There’s definitely some of that going on.”
And even with all that taken into account, there’s a lot more to what Smith’s doing that’s gotten Ryan’s mind working. That’s because while the bones of his offense can be traced to the Shanahan family tree, there’s nuanced difference that made it work for Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee and will allow for Smith to fit it to Ryan, too, based on the varied experiences the coach has had. Smith worked under four head coaches in Nashville and under five coordinators before he took the reins as OC two years ago.
“Every coordinator’s a little different, they’ve got a different flavor,” Ryan said. “To be honest with you, there’s more carryover [than just the Shanahan connection]. He worked with Mike Mularkey too in Tennessee, and Mike was my first coordinator. And Terry Robiskie was there, and Terry was our wide receivers coach for eight-plus years. There’s a mix of different parts of my career in all of it. Things I recognize from different spaces.
“I think everyone’s flavor on it is a little different. Matt’s very different in Green Bay than Kyle is in San Francisco now, and Sean [McVay] is different in L.A., so everybody kind of has their own flavor on it. And for sure Arthur Smith is a little different as well.”
That dynamic, for sure, carries over into personnel too with Fontenot’s arrival. Ryan and the new GM had that meeting at the hospital opening, and have had a string of phone conversations, too. And while Ryan learned a lot, there was an obvious experience that Fontenot brought to the table that really got him going—with Fontenot’s having been part of rebuilding the Saints’ roster around an aging quarterback and, in doing so, giving Drew Brees quality swings at a championship through his thirties and into his forties.
“Listen, I lived it the last five years, man,” Ryan said, laughing. “I definitely know it. They did a good job of getting that thing going pretty quickly.”
To be sure, seeing what the Saints were bringing in those rivalry games was eye-opening for Ryan—during the phone conversations with Fontenot, Ryan jokes he got to “rehash going against him the last decade and telling him how much I hated him the day before he got hired”—with things turning as New Orleans started stacking star-studded draft classes.
“They absolutely did a great job,” Ryan said. “And like you mentioned, building around all the things that go along with a veteran quarterback. He did an excellent job, and New Orleans did an excellent job with the last five or six years.”
So in a lot of new ways, the last few months felt like they were giving Ryan a new lease on his football life. And drafting Pitts over Fields and Jones was simply affirmation that he was going to get a chance to live that out.
Ryan learned a lot by going through what he and the Falcons have over the last year. The pandemic led him, in the spring of 2020, to organize what basically mirrored an NFL offseason program. Then, there was managing COVID-19 protocols in-season, during a season that started with a five-game losing streak that got the coach he’d gone to a Super Bowl with and the GM that drafted him fired in mid-October. And a 4–2 flourish under interim coach Raheem Morris was followed by another five-game losing streak to bookend the lost season.
Ryan’s now 36 and predates just about everyone in the organization, save for owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay. And having done what he’s done for 13 years, and taking on the role he did last year in those condition, does put him in a unique spot.
“Going through all the COVID stuff, finding a way to be more efficient, to be better, to not waste time, to be able to maximize the time we have together, I think all of those things, I’ve learned and grown from significantly,” Ryan said. “I think you should be constantly evolving with your leadership style, because every team is different, every year’s a different group of guys and what they need from you is different. I certainly feel like I’ve changed and grown and hopefully am better served to do all these things than I’ve ever been.”
In that way, he’s been a great resource for Smith and Fontenot, as they get their feet wet.
But all the same, Ryan says that Smith and Fontenot have been great for him, too, in large part just because it is different. That’s not affront to anyone Ryan’s worked with, either. More so, it’s just reality—that even through what would’ve been tense moments for some people, with the possibility your replacement is about to arrive, he’s found excitement in seeing the newness of everything around him.
Remember, the last time Ryan went through a coaching change, his career got a very real second wind, one that nearly carried him to a championship.
“There’s a natural level of excitement that comes from it being different,” Ryan said. “And I love Dan [Quinn] and I love Thomas [Dimitroff], have so much respect for those guys, and I learned a ton from them. And I think that’s going to serve me better moving forward with a new staff. But there is excitement. It’s a little different. There’s a different energy, a level of wanting to prove yourself, show what you can do, all of that stuff is there.
“I think it makes it exciting, keeps it fresh for a guy in Year 14 and certainly provides plenty of motivation and gives you the energy to get out of bed and get moving.”
Over the last few weeks, with Pitts in the fold—a tight end who Ryan says not only has the talent that’s obvious to everyone, but an attention to detail he’s seen in the best players he’s been around—and Ryan’s place in Atlanta solidified, everyone could get moving forward together with the gray area gone.
But as for how Ryan’s approaching it? That part never changed. So he’ll just keep heading in the direction he was going all along.