FLOWERY BRANCH — With Michael Vick out of the picture, the Atlanta Falcons wasted little time anointing Matt Ryan as the new face of the franchise.
They drafted the quarterback third overall, lavished him with a $72 million contract, and decided three preseason games was enough to make him the starter.
Will they regret that decision down the road?
The Falcons are certainly putting themselves at some risk by going with a rookie at such a high-profile position, especially when he’ll be playing behind an offensive line that could be one of the leakier units in the league.
Protecting Ryan’s blind side at the critical left tackle position is another rookie, Sam Baker. Lining up next to Baker is second-year guard Justin Blalock. On the right side, Atlanta could start not one, but two linemen who weren’t even drafted out of college, Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo.
But the Falcons’ new coach, Mike Smith, has no qualms about going with Ryan right from the start.
“There’s no hesitancy at all,” Smith said Wednesday. “We told the players from day one that it was an open competition for every position on the field. Matt won the job. It would be an injustice not to play the best players and give our team the best opportunity to win.”
He can only hope that Ryan doesn’t become another David Carr.
The top overall pick in 2002 by the expansion Houston Texans, Carr started all 16 games his very first season. It was a dubious decision that might have cost him any chance of ever becoming anything more than a journeyman pro.
Playing behind a shaky line — hmm, that sounds familiar — Carr was sacked an NFL-record 76 times as a rookie, which understandably hurt his confidence and left him wary of getting hit, the notorious “happy feet” syndrome that has ruined many a top prospect.
Carr lasted five seasons in Houston but never produced a winning record. He’s now backing up Eli Manning on the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
“It would have obviously helped to have more talent around him,” said Houston offensive lineman Chester Pitts, one of the few original Texans still with that team. “If things could have been different, maybe it would have played out differently.”
Ryan put up decent numbers in the preseason, completing about 58 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and one interception, good enough to beat out veteran Chris Redman for the starting job.
The rookie also was sacked four times, giving him a little taste of what he may be in for this year.
But Ryan shrugged off any comparisons to Carr, even while he prepares to lead a team that went 4-12 last season in the wake of Vick’s dogfighting case, and has the look of an expansion team heading into Sunday’s opener against the Detroit Lions.
The 53-man roster that includes 19 players — seven of them rookies — with no more than one year of pro experience. The Falcons are certainly in a rebuilding mode, with most prognosticators picking them to finish last in the NFC South with no more than two or three wins.
“It doesn’t really concern me,” said Ryan, whose unflappable demeanor should come in handy. “There’s going to be ups and downs, and I have to be able to deal with that, learn from it and try to be a better player at the end of the year than I was at the beginning.”
Ryan insists that he’s confident in the guys up front, though it would be downright shocking for him to say otherwise. After all, he wants to stay on their good side, since they’re the ones who’ll largely determine how much time he spends on his feet — and on his back.
“I’m fired up about the guys up front,” Ryan said. “The pass protection has been really good. I’ve not had too much pressure in the pocket, and we’ve seen a good amount of blitzes through the preseason. ... They’re physical guys and they’ve got a nasty attitude. It’s always good to have those type of guys in front of you.”
Of course, that was the preseason.
Let’s see how the line holds up when the games actually count.
“I think we’re up for the challenge,” Dahl said. “He’s a real tough kid. I think he can handle whatever they throw at him. We’ve just got to do everything in our power to keep guys off him.”
The Falcons will try to take some of the pressure off Ryan by establishing a powerful running game centered on two explosive backs, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. If Atlanta can run the ball effectively — as it did in the preseason with an average of 140 yards a game — Ryan will find himself in more situations where he’s passing when he wants to, not when he has to, thereby putting the rushers on their heals.
That sounds good on paper, but it remains to be seen whether the Falcons can pull it off against defenses that surely will be stacking the line with seven or eight defenders. If Ryan finds himself continually facing third-and-long, things could get ugly.
“If you’ve got somebody in your face the whole time, it’s hard to be effective,” said center Todd McClure, a 10th-year player and likely to be the senior starter on the line.
That’s what happened to Carr in Houston.
“He took a lot of hits,” former teammate Andre Johnson said. “Sometimes, you kind of get shellshocked from that.”
Smith dissed any comparisons to Carr, as well as those who think this rookie quarterback would have been better off starting his career with a clipboard in his hands rather than a ball.
“You don’t gain anything from sitting on the sidelines watching,” the coach said. “If you’re the best player, you should have an opportunity to go out there and play.”