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Love affair for Falcons’ Ryan is growing

derrty bird

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SAN FRANCISCO – I showed up in San Francisco on Sunday morning with a major man-crush on Matt Ryan(notes).

By midway through the third quarter of Sunday's game at Candlestick Park, I was ready to take the Atlanta Falcons quarterback up to Gavin Newsom's box on the west side of the stadium and ask the San Francisco mayor to marry us.

No, I'm not being literal (not that there's anything wrong with that). But I do think Ryan is an awesome football player, and his stellar effort in the Falcons' 45-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers bolstered my conviction that the second-year passer is on his way to being the best in the business.

In completing 22 of 32 passes for a career-high 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns against a defense that had been ranked fifth in the NFL coming into the game, Ryan showcased his tremendous skill set while looking far more comfortable than a 24-year-old quarterback should have a right to be.

You know the basics about Ryan, last season's NFL offensive rookie of the year: He's the freakishly prepared first-round draft pick who stepped into an immediate starting role, helped transform his team into an instant contender and managed to conceal his growing pains with consistently poised performances.

Now, after just 21 career starts, Ryan stands on the brink of superstardom. Last year, he took the Falcons to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. When he does the things he did against the Niners (3-2) on Sunday, it's hard not to wonder how far he's capable of taking the Falcons (3-1) in '09 and beyond.

Could Ryan already be good enough to guide this young team to the Super Bowl?

"He'd better be," said tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes), the 33-year-old future Hall of Famer who came to the Falcons in an offseason trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. "That's one of the reasons I was so happy to be traded here, because I think he's ready. He's definitely the leader of this team, and it all stems from hard work and intense preparation. He does so much studying before every game that when he's out there, trust me, he's not nervous in the least."

I'm not going to say I was nervous when I talked to Ryan after the game – after hanging with the Joe Montana-John Elway-Dan Marino Holy Trinity earlier in my career, I became immune to all that – but I do foresee a day when he'll be one of those larger-than-life icons.

Yep, I think he's that good, and getting better. Let's imagine that I had to win a playoff game tomorrow, and I could have anyone in the world quarterbacking my team. Here's a list of current players I'd choose ahead of Ryan: Tom Brady(notes), Peyton Manning(notes), Ben Roethlisberger(notes), Kurt Warner(notes), Donovan McNabb(notes), Carson Palmer(notes), Eli Manning(notes), Philip Rivers(notes) and Drew Brees(notes).

OK, now let's suppose that I were in charge of starting a franchise and could pick any quarterback around which to build it. The list of guys I'd pick over Ryan includes … um … well … uh … nobody.

Why am I so high on the kid? Partly, it's because every time I see him in person, he transcends his numbers and highlight reel and puts balls in places that don't seem possible. To put it another way: What he does looks way more impressive in three dimensions.

More than that, though, I love the way the third overall pick in the '08 draft does the boring things – works his butt off, approaches his job in a professional manner, carries himself like one of the guys – without thinking it's in any way extraordinary.

"That was kind of my focus from the start – to come in and work hard to be part of a team, to do what it takes to win on the field and in the locker room," Ryan said after Sunday's game. "It's nothing different than what I've done in high school or college. It takes time, but that's what you've got to do."

It sounds so obvious, you'd think that everyone in Ryan's position would adopt the same approach. But so many presumed franchise quarterbacks in recent years (Matt Leinart(notes), Vince Young(notes), JaMarcus Russell(notes)) have seemed far more entitled and less dedicated to their craft.

Only Russell is currently starting, and it's painful to watch. Drafted first overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, Russell has had well-documented struggles with immaturity. It's not just a media issue, either.

"On a scale of 1-to-10 in terms of work ethic, I hear [Russell]'s like a 3," Gonzalez said. "You hear rumors [from other players] about some of these young guys who don't get it at all, and I've been around quarterbacks like that. Matt's a 10, which is what you've got to be to be a franchise quarterback. At Pro Bowls over the years, I've talked to Peyton a lot about this, and that's the key to being great – a willingness to be prepared at the highest level."

There are numerous examples of Ryan's will in this regard, one of which Gonzalez noticed immediately during offseason practices.

"While the defense is working, usually offensive guys just stand there and watch," Gonzalez said. "He'll come over to me and say, 'Hey, let's [go work on] a corner or a 'dip' route,' and we'll go throw on the side. That's what I've liked to do for a long time, and it's great. To have your starting quarterback want to throw balls to you during dead periods, that's amazing."

Ryan produced his share of amazing moments Sunday, including an oh-no-he-didn't 24-yard pass to wideout Roddy White(notes) (eight catches for a franchise-record 210 yards and two TDs) – with Niners safety Dashon Goldson(notes) completely obscuring the quarterback's throwing window – to set up Atlanta's fifth touchdown late in the first half.

Yet there were also times when Ryan's teammates were reminded that he's still a relative novice.

"At one point in the third quarter he was yelling at us because he thought we weren't lined up right, and he had to call a timeout," White recalled. "He can be really loud and aggressive – he doesn't give y'all that side of him, but it's there – and he was all over us. But he had called the wrong play! We told him, 'Uh, you called 'Choice,' not 'Chief.' And he was like, 'Oh.' "

Confirmed Ryan, laughing: "Yeah, that was on me. It was, 'Wait a minute – my bad.' "

Even worse was Ryan's decision to try to spike the ball after sneaking to the right pylon for a one-yard touchdown run with 8:20 remaining and victory long since assured.

"We killed him on the sidelines for that," backup quarterback Chris Redman(notes) said. "We said, 'Matt, you don't want to spike the ball when you're up by 30.' Plus, it was one of the ugliest spikes ever. He went up with the ball and sort of missed the hard spike, and it just kind of squirted out."

Ryan's defense? "I've never spiked a football before," he said. "Never. I probably should've practiced it once or twice before I busted it out in a game."

A few seconds later, I thanked the future superstar for his time and watched him walk outside Candlestick to the players' parking lot. He was wearing a blue-and-white striped button-up shirt, a pair of baggy, gray sweats and some old-school Nikes – a tough combination to pull off.

From my vantage point, of course, he looked just dreamy.

Link: http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news;_ylt=AjYsjrnv50f0EEV.LXJxRa1DubYF?slug=ms-morningrush101209&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

Edited by derrty bird
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Ryan is great. We all know this, the real question is, where is his ceiling? That's what I wanna know. He seems to get better every single game. Also, he can only take us so far. I would absolutely LOVE to drop 45 a game, but that is unlikely. Every time I read an article like this I get really giddy, which is not really in my character, because I know that we have something special. But remembering this is a team effort makes me wonder, can the D step it up every single game like yesterday and make the plays we need to make? I really friggin hope so.

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