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Matt Ryan Taking His Game, Atlanta Falcons To The Next Level


MattM12
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It's a simple question that dogged Eli Manning all last year.

And when that question is posed to Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith -- Is your quarterback truly elite?-- he provides a simple answer similar to Eli's well-publicized retort:

"Yes," Smith answered, without skipping a beat. "I do believe that."

Three games don't make a season, much less a legacy, but as starts go,Matt Ryan is on his way to proving his coach clairvoyant and following in Manning's footsteps as a questioned quarterback taking his game to another level.

With games against Kansas City, Denver and San Diego under his belt,Ryan leads the NFL with a 114.0 quarterback rating, has a sparking 8-1 TD-to-INT ratio and, most importantly, has won all three of his starts in impressive fashion. Moreover, as the offense has shifted its philosophy -- moving from Mike Mularkey's ground-heavy system to spread-influenced coordinator Dirk Koetter's scheme -- Ryan has started to really look like the type of quarterback who can completely control a game.

"I haven't seen all the quarterbacks play this year, so I can't rank him," Smith said. "But I know that through the first three weeks of this season, he's played the best football of his career -- by far."

Smith and Ryan arrived together in Atlanta, each hand-picked by GM Thomas Dimitroff, so their successes, failures and general lines of progression are fairly similar. Accordingly, as Smith is marked by his 0-3 playoff record, Ryan is, too. But the last of the three defeats -- an embarrassing 24-2 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants -- might be as responsible for setting the stage for this September as anything.

"Once the game ended," Smith explained, "it became a learning experience for all of us, and it allowed us as a team, as coaches and players, to take a good hard look at how we had to improve."

Through that playoff demise, Dimitroff and Smith recognized the team needed more swagger, and had to play with more of a gunslinger mentality in big spots, which led to the hires of Koetter and veteran defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Meanwhile, Ryan figured he had to put himself in better position to be at his physical best in January, so he gained 5-7 pounds of muscles and dropped 2-3 percent body fat with the idea that a leaner, stronger quarterback would withstand the rigors of the season better. As it turns out, there have been more immediate returns, as well.

Smith says it's always been Ryan's offense, but the truth is that the Falcons leaned fairly heavily on Michael Turner and the running game in the quarterback's first couple years. That's changed with Turner wearing out the tread on his tires, as well as an increased emphasis on improving the options in the passing game -- most notably, the blockbuster 2011 draft acquisition of the matchup-busting Julio Jones. And this year, with the addition of Koetter and ascension of Jones, that shift has pushed into high gear."I see an increase in arm strength," Smith said. "It's not necessarily how far he's throwing it. In this day and age, with the spacing passing game, you have to have velocity on your 10- and 17-yard throws. That's where it shows up. You definitely see that. And then his decision making has improved, just because of his experience. I know he'd like to have that (lone) interception back, but he's been very efficient through three weeks. The numbers are right there."

It's not by mistake, either. In Dimitroff's vision, Jones was brought in to give Roddy White what Marvin Harrison got in Reggie Wayne in 2001 -- and give Ryan what Peyton Manning had in them both. A year later, Smith had Ryan sit down with Koetter (whom Smith had worked with in Jacksonville) as part of the process of interviewing for the coordinator job, with the idea of forming a partnership. As Smith says now, "They've hit it off, which we could see then."

The result: Now, it really is Ryan's show, the way New England is Tom Brady's or New Orleans is Drew Brees'.

"It is a quarterback-driven league, and Matt is coming into his own in Year 5," Smith said. "Chronologically, he's not old. But when it comes to football snaps? He's taken a lot of snaps and that bodes well for everyone. It's about the experience he's had. Matt's a smart guy, so once he sees things once or twice, he gets them. And he's seen a lot of things now."

It's interesting, too, to look at this from Smith's point of view. Brees' fifth year was 2005. He was still a Charger and had yet to win a playoff game. Aaron Rodgers' fifth season was 2009, and he was just a year removed from taking Brett Favre's job, having yet to evenplay in a postseason contest. Both those guys are champions now, so it's easy to forget those days.

Smith sees Ryan making strides in every area of quarterbacking, from an improved internal clock to better pocket presence to a more thorough understanding of defenses to an enhanced ability to protect himself when he tucks and runs.

The short of that: Smith isn't surprised this step has come. In his mind, it was only a matter of when.

"He made strides from Year 1 to Year 2, Year 2 to Year 3, so we've seen it. We felt like he was gonna have a big year," Smith explained. "The ceiling's very high for Matt Ryan, and I believe that he's not even close to reaching it. He's gonna be an outstanding player for a long, long time in the NFL."

If he keeps this up a few more months, all that will be left to settle is that pesky playoff thing

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My highlights from the piece. Great read.

And when that question is posed to Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith -- Is your quarterback truly elite?-- he provides a simple answer similar to Eli's well-publicized retort:

"Yes," Smith answered, without skipping a beat. "I do believe that."

"I haven't seen all the quarterbacks play this year, so I can't rank him," Smith said. "But I know that through the first three weeks of this season, he's played the best football of his career -- by far."

Smith says it's always been Ryan's offense, but the truth is that the Falcons leaned fairly heavily on Michael Turner and the running game in the quarterback's first couple years. That's changed with Turner wearing out the tread on his tires, as well as an increased emphasis on improving the options in the passing game -- most notably, the blockbuster 2011 draft acquisition of the matchup-busting Julio Jones. And this year, with the addition of Koetter and ascension of Jones, that shift has pushed into high gear."I see an increase in arm strength," Smith said. "It's not necessarily how far he's throwing it. In this day and age, with the spacing passing game, you have to have velocity on your 10- and 17-yard throws. That's where it shows up. You definitely see that. And then his decision making has improved, just because of his experience. I know he'd like to have that (lone) interception back, but he's been very efficient through three weeks. The numbers are right there."

It's not by mistake, either. In Dimitroff's vision, Jones was brought in to give Roddy White what Marvin Harrison got in Reggie Wayne in 2001 -- and give Ryan what Peyton Manning had in them both. A year later, Smith had Ryan sit down with Koetter (whom Smith had worked with in Jacksonville) as part of the process of interviewing for the coordinator job, with the idea of forming a partnership. As Smith says now, "They've hit it off, which we could see then."

The result: Now, it really is Ryan's show, the way New England is Tom Brady's or New Orleans is Drew Brees'.

"It is a quarterback-driven league, and Matt is coming into his own in Year 5," Smith said. "Chronologically, he's not old. But when it comes to football snaps? He's taken a lot of snaps and that bodes well for everyone. It's about the experience he's had. Matt's a smart guy, so once he sees things once or twice, he gets them. And he's seen a lot of things now."

Smith sees Ryan making strides in every area of quarterbacking, from an improved internal clock to better pocket presence to a more thorough understanding of defenses to an enhanced ability to protect himself when he tucks and runs.

The short of that: Smith isn't surprised this step has come. In his mind, it was only a matter of when.

"He made strides from Year 1 to Year 2, Year 2 to Year 3, so we've seen it. We felt like he was gonna have a big year," Smith explained. "The ceiling's very high for Matt Ryan, and I believe that he's not even close to reaching it. He's gonna be an outstanding player for a long, long time in the NFL."

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