Pro Bowl alternate? Smith was impressed.
NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year? A huge accomplishment, said the coach.
Then, after the Falcons’ surprising 11-win season ended with a wild-card loss at Arizona, Ryan landed another honor that blew away his coach.
Ryan was voted by his teammates on Sunday as one of the team’s permanent captains for the season — a rare honor for a rookie.
"Of all the individual awards, this to me is probably the most prestigious," Smith said Monday.
"I told Matt, ‘You’re rookie of the year, Pro Bowl first alternate, but to me this is probably the biggest honor. Your teammates, the guys in the locker room, voted you a team captain your first year.’"
Ryan’s emergence as the team’s starter is a big reason the Falcons earned their first playoff berth since 2004 and have expectations of continued improvement next season. The Falcons, 11-5 in the regular season, lost at Arizona 30-24 on Saturday in a wild-card game.
Players voted for six captains, two each on offense, defense and special teams. The other captains were center Todd McClure, safety Lawyer Milloy, defensive end John Abraham, punter Michael Koenen and linebacker Coy Wire.
Ryan’s No. 2 successfully replaced Michael Vick’s No. 7 as the team’s lead jersey, and the former Boston College quarterback embraced the role.
Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the 2008 draft, started every game and threw every pass for the Falcons. He threw two interceptions in the loss at Arizona, but he also passed for two touchdowns. He passed for 16 touchdowns with 11 interceptions while completing 61 percent of his passes in the regular season.
"It was a fun year," Ryan said Monday.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff said "it warmed my heart" to see Ryan back in the film room on Sunday, reviewing the Arizona game but also studying other games as his focus turned quickly to the 2009 season.
"It was kind of self-evaluation and self-scouting, trying to get a feel for what I need to work on in this offseason," Ryan said.
Ryan said he can improve his accuracy and decision making, but he said he also was looking for more subtle ways to be better.
"You look at your tendencies, where you go with the football, your eyes, your footwork, all kinds of different things because other people are out there doing that and trying to get a feel," Ryan said.
Said Dimitroff: "It was impressive to think his mind-set was such that he was thinking about next year."
The Falcons improved from a 4-12 finish in 2007. Thanks to the turnaround, Smith on Sunday was voted The Associated Press Coach of the Year.
Dimitroff, Smith and Ryan agreed Monday the team’s MVP was running back Michael Turner, the former San Diego backup who rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns.
"The way he carried the team on his back was outstanding," Dimitroff said.
Roddy White had 88 catches for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns before leading the team with 11 catches for 82 yards and a TD against Arizona. Abraham set his career high with 161/2 sacks.
The Falcons must make difficult decisions with some older starters on defense, including Milloy and tackle Grady Jackson, who are unrestricted free agents, and linebacker Keith Brooking.
Milloy, 35, was praised by Smith on Monday for his role in helping establish a winning culture on the team. Jackson also is 35. Brooking, 33, is signed through 2009.
Brooking was beaten by Arizona backup tight end Stephen Spach for a 23-yard gain on a crucial third-and-16 play late in the fourth quarter. Smith didn’t mention Brooking on Monday, but said "we did not play that down well across the board."
Dimitroff said Monday it is too early for personnel decisions and also too early to say what positions will be emphasized in free agency and the draft.
"We’ll look at every position on this roster to determine whether we need to move forward or get better at that position," Dimitroff said.
Smith said it’ll be important for Ryan, Turner and others to stay away from the Falcons’ complex for a few weeks and rest.
It may be more difficult for Smith to stay away. He acknowledged he’s ready for another game.
"It can’t get here quick enough for me," Smith said. "I can’t wait to get back in a ballgame and get the taste of Saturday out of my mouth."