FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan threw every pass Atlanta attempted last season, so the Falcons never had to confront their worst fear.
What if Ryan, their franchise cornerstone, got hurt?
Right now, Dominique Davis, a second-year pro with no NFL game experience, would be the starting quarterback, but based on his performance in last week's preseason loss to Cincinnati, the Falcons would be in trouble.
Davis knows another round of mixed reviews could hurt his chances to earn the No. 2 job behind Ryan before the Sept. 8 season opener at New Orleans. He was pretty hard on himself after going just 8 of 19 passing for 78 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Bengals.
"Right after the game, I had a sick feeling in my stomach," Davis said Sunday night. "I felt horrible."
The Bengals brought heavy pressure against Atlanta's offensive line, but Davis hardly helped himself with poor decisions when his protections broke down. His subpar 49.9 passer rating was justified.
"After watching the film, you can't put it all on the O-line," Davis said. "There were a few times I could've helped the O-line out by getting out of the pocket. That's what I'm good at. The O-line did some good things, and it's my job to make sure those guys look good."
Coach Mike Smith was more succinct, particularly in reviewing the interception.
Late in the second quarter, Davis was forced to scramble to his right as Cincinnati defensive end DeQuin Evans pursued from behind and defensive end Margus Hunt pursued toward Davis' front.
But instead of throwing the ball out of bounds, Davis jumped near the Atlanta sideline as he was going out of bounds and forced a pass that Brandon Ghee easily picked off.
Drew Davis, the intended receiver, never had a chance to make a play on the ball.
"Sometimes it's not about what you do — it's about what you don't do," Smith said. "We need for him to make better decisions in that situation, but Dom has continued to progress and gotten better from the beginning of OTAs until now."
That's why it's imperative for Davis to improve when Atlanta (0-1 preseason) visits Baltimore (1-0) on Thursday.
Davis remembers how the Falcons waited until late August last year to cut No. 2 Chris Redmond and No. 3 QB John Parker Wilson before signing Luke McCown as Ryan's potential emergency replacement. Davis beat out Wilson for the third-string job, but that's not the role he wants this season.
Atlanta signed McCown, an eight-year veteran, one day after he was cut by the New Orleans Saints, but it's unclear if an experienced backup will be available when teams make their final cuts later this month.
There was a long list of candidates available in free agency, but Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chase Daniel, Matt Cassel, Jason Campbell, John Skelton, Drew Stanton and Vince Young all signed elsewhere.
Now the Falcons must wait to see how Davis, a former undrafted free agent from East Carolina, performs over the next three weeks before they decide if he's capable of holding the No. 2 job.
It's highly doubtful that Sean Renfree or Seth Doege, the third and fourth QBs in camp, would be considered. Both are rookies. Renfree is a seventh-round draft pick from Duke and Doege an undrafted free agent from Texas Tech.
"That first half, I was just trying to make too many plays, just forcing it," Davis said. "Sometimes the smart thing to do is just throw it away. Even when it's third-and-long, you don't have to force it to get a first down.
Sometimes you've just got to cut your losses and throw it away."
The Falcons have been fortunate that Ryan, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, hasn't missed a game since 2009 and just two in his five-year career.
Davis calls himself a "huge fan" of Ryan. The two have known each other since Ryan's senior year at Boston College coincided with Davis' freshman year. Davis later left for East Carolina, and Ryan became the NFL's third overall draft pick in 2008.
"He's a great guy to learn from," Davis said. "He's one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He's an elite quarterback. He's my favorite quarterback. I'm going to continue behind him, watching what he does and copy the same thing he does in the future."