Falcons vs. Chargers
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Georgia Dome
TV, radio: NBC; 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
FLOWERY BRANCH — This time last year, Matt Ryan was a wide-eyed rookie with a limited understanding on the NFL.
The Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback is comfortable and confident after surpassing expectations as the No. 3 overall draft pick.
Ryan took each of Atlanta’s offensive snaps — 1,011, to be exact — while winning 11 of 16 starts. He helped the Falcons earn a wild-card playoff spot and was named NFL offensive rookie of the year.
"We accomplished some of our goals last season, but there’s a lot of work to be done," Ryan said. "I know I’m not satisfied, and I know nobody else on this team was satisfied to end the season the way we did."
Coach Mike Smith indicated Wednesday that the Falcons (1-1 preseason) will likely have Ryan play the entire first half when San Diego (1-1) visits the Georgia Dome on Saturday night.
NFL teams routinely prepare regular season-like game plans for next-to-last exhibition, so Ryan is looking forward to the first substantial challenge of 2009.
"Coach Smith has made mention of that," Ryan said. "It’s good for us to go play against one of the best football teams in the league. That’s what you’re going to get in San Diego. It’s a team that’s been to the playoffs a number of times and they have some really, really good football players."
Atlanta isn’t exactly hurting on offense. Running back Michael Turner and receiver Roddy White were first-team Pro Bowl picks last year, and the Falcons acquired all-everything tight end Tony Gonzalez in a trade with Kansas City four months ago.
After watching Ryan, Gonzalez decided the time was right to play for Atlanta.
"Everyone knows it’s uncommon to see that kind of performance from a rookie quarterback," Gonzalez said. "He’s got the maturity of an older guy, and what I’m enjoying so much on the field is how precisely he throws to spots. Puts the ball right in your hands on your route. We have a chance to have a great year if we just take care of our own business."
Part of Ryan’s job description last year was to give the Falcons a new start after quarterback Michael Vick, the face of the franchise, landed in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting ring.
Atlanta was also reeling from coach Bobby Petrino’s resignation after 13 games in 2007, and the team’s scouting department took a hit in late December that year when owner Arthur Blank removed Falcons president Rich McKay from his control of personnel.
Ryan knows Blank is grateful to have general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith visibly atop the organization.
"One of the first things I learned from Mr. Blank was his desire to find the best people for the job and his desire to win," Ryan said. "He does everything he can to give you the resources to succeed. It’s a pleasure working for him and this team."
The only NFL rookie quarterback ever to win four of his first six starts, Ryan flashed a glimpse of potential when his first passing attempt was a 62-yard touchdown to receiver Michael Jenkins.
His first 300-yard passing game was a last-second victory over Chicago. A 26-yard sideline completion to Jenkins with one tick left on the clock ended with Jason Elam’s field goal.
"No question that Matt’s a special player," said Turner, who finished second in NFL rushing last year. "He took immediate command of the huddle the first time we practiced together. He’s got real leadership ability."