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Childhood taught Falcons quarterback to handle pressure


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Philly made Matt Ryan tough

Childhood taught Falcons quarterback to handle pressure

By Ashley Fox

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published on: 06/16/08

His isn't the easiest of situations, replacing a polarizing and electric quarterback in a town divided, trying to resurrect a franchise that has endured the toughest two years imaginable. But Matt Ryan is unfazed by the task.

He has Philadelphia to thank for that.

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The young Ryan, only 23, is, like most sports fans from this city, tortured and tested. He's watched players come and players go, spit out and chewed up by the proverbial meat grinder. As a devout fan of the four major professional sports franchises here, Ryan has seen more lows than highs, and he saw the worst that can happen as Donovan McNabb was booed at the NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall.

So the pressure of that six-year, $72 million contract he signed last month with the Atlanta Falcons and the expectations that deal hoisted on his shoulders is nothing.

"If there's one thing I learned growing up in that area it's that you can't worry about" expectations, Ryan said by telephone from Atlanta last week. "You can't even think about it. If you do, if you get caught up in it, it can only distract you. For me, I certainly have high expectations for myself and what I want to accomplish as a player. You have to live up to those expectations, and that's really the way I've gone about it."

The Falcons' expectations are undoubtedly high for the native of Exton, Pa. They need a savior, someone to erase the scars left from Michael Vick and someone who can lead the franchise out of the NFL's cellar. Atlanta is on its fourth coach in three years, and new coach Mike Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff decided in April that Ryan, coming off a stellar senior season at Boston College, was just the guy and used the third overall pick in the draft to select him.

As the Falcons this week finish up their final minicamp of the off-season, Ryan essentially is third on the depth chart, behind journeymen Chris Redman and Joey Harrington and alongside D.J. Shockley. But as Smith has said since taking over in January, every starting position including quarterback is up for grabs. No one associated with the Falcons wants to rush Ryan, but no one is going to baby him, either.

The franchise made it a priority to quickly sign Ryan he was the second first-round pick to finalize a deal and it announced the signing last month in front of dozens of sponsors, potential suite-holders and team partners at owner Arthur Blank's posh office in Buckhead. Team president Rich McKay told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time that signing Ryan was "the right thing to do so he doesn't at all fall behind where he has one of those rookie years where he never catches up."

Translation: We need him, and we need him now.

Although he received good-natured ribbing from his new teammates after receiving $34.75 million in guaranteed money without ever setting foot on an NFL field, Ryan didn't let it bother him. "To be honest with you," he said, "I think there are worse things than being teased about that."

It's unlikely but not out of the realm of possibility that Ryan moves up the depth chart and passes Redman and Harrington during training camp. Although Redman, who joined the team for the 2007 season, has taken the majority of reps with the first-team offense, he is not the future, only a Band-Aid. Ryan, as team executives constantly say, is the franchise quarterback.

There are two schools of thought. One is to let Redman start the season and, if it slips away, as is likely the case, let Ryan take over in October or November. The other is to let Ryan start right away, even though the Falcons' offensive line could be the worst in the NFL.

Might Ryan be the starter when the Falcons come to Lincoln Financial Field on Oct. 26?

"We'll see," he said. "We'll see. I'll have to see how it goes."

That would be quite a thing for the longtime Eagles fan. Ryan was heartbroken when the Eagles reached those three consecutive NFC title games only to fall short and was thrilled when they finally reached the Super Bowl in 2005.

While he remains a rabid fan of the 76ers, Flyers and Phillies, Ryan said he had to shelve his Eagles affection.

"Obviously when you're playing in the same league, your feelings about that team are going to change," Ryan said.

That's not the case with the Phillies. On Thursday, he correctly recited the team's record and lamented the walk-off grand slam that cost them the game against Florida last week. Ryan had wanted to attend the Phillies' recent series with the Braves in Atlanta, but furnishing his new house in Atlanta took precedence.

"I caught the one game where the Braves' first or second baseman dropped the ball," Ryan said. "That was one of the cheapest wins I've ever seen."

Soon, Ryan will be focused on wins and losses as an entire city will rely upon him to make the Vick saga a distant memory.

© 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer's World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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