Falcons vs. Vikings
When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday
Where: Minneapolis, Minn.
TV, radio: FOX (WAGA-5); 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
His eyes instantly lit up, but then the Atlanta Falcons’ 23-year-old rookie quarterback sidestepped his inner emotional rush and assessed the situation.
"Uh, you know, yeah," Ryan said, lowering his voice to its familiar monotone. "I think that kind of stuff — you’d have to ask coach (Mike Smith) about that."
If you guessed, one, that Ryan is indeed a Pro Bowl alternate and that, two, he prefers a low profile, you’re right on both counts.
But the more Atlanta keeps winning, the harder it will be for Ryan to avoid discussing his credentials. Entering this week’s game at Minnesota, the league’s No. 3 overall pick in the April draft has helped the Falcons emerge as a surprise playoff contender.
"I think I’ve got a long way to go to really arrive," Ryan said. "I think the measure of good play in this league is consistency, and you have to continue to do it year in and year out."
Ryan is the first rookie quarterback since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to start his team’s first six games and win at least four times. He and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco became the first pair of rookie QBs to start on the same opening day since 1971, when Archie Manning was under center for New Orleans and Jim Plunkett for New England.
Flacco, drafted 18th overall out of Delaware, and Ryan are attempting to become the first rookie quarterbacks to start 16 games and throw less than 15 interceptions apiece. Only Rick Mirer in 1993, Peyton Manning in 1998 and David Carr in 2002 have made every start as a rookie quarterback.
Ryan, whose first passing attempt was a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins in Atlanta’s season-opening win over Detroit, believes all those snaps he took in the offseason, training camp and preseason paid off when the real games began.
"The first series of our third preseason game against Tennessee, we went down, right after halftime, and scored," Ryan said. "At that point, it was just, ‘Yeah.’ But I think you have to believe in yourself and be confident in what you do. I’ve always been very confident in my abilities, but you don’t know sometimes until you’ve done it and had both positive and negative experiences. Every different experience you can have as a rookie helps."
Sacked just once every 28.8 attempts, Ryan has benefited from steady protection that allows him enough time to go through his progressions. He ranks third in yards per completion (13) and yards per attempt (8.02).
According to Falcons receiver and close friend Brian Finneran, Ryan "watches more film than any quarterback I’ve ever seen," but the rookie might need more seasoning in handling adverse conditions on the road.
His splits are fairly close between home and away games until you look at completion percentage (66.5 at the Georgia Dome, 59 on the road) and record 6-1, 3-5.
Though he knows the crowd in Minnesota will delight in throwing off his cadence and affecting his pre-snap count, Ryan believes he benefits from bad experiences this early in his career. The trick, of course, is not to repeat mistakes.
"You start to get a feel for calling the plays and all those kind of things, but you need that experience of going through reps," Ryan said of what he learned during the mini-camps and organized team activities.
"I think in camp I started to feel a little more comfortable," he said. "Those preseason games, for a rookie, are huge, and to have some success going out and making some plays in the games, I think that helps build your confidence."