FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan made it all look easy at the beginning of his NFL career.
As a rookie, he guided the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs. For the first five years of his career, he never experienced a losing season, a stretch that included two division titles and a Super Bowl near-miss.
But, at age 31 and coming off the team’s third straight non-winning season, Ryan finds himself at a bit of a crossroads.
The quarterback known as Matty Ice still has the full confidence of his coaches and teammates, but a question keeps popping up around the city: Is he the right guy to lead the Falcons to their first championship?
“Matt is a guy who’s been on a mission since the season ended,” said Dan Quinn, the team’s second-year coach.
Ryan is always reticent about looking at the big picture, and he’s not about to change that perspective.
Still, it’s clear he’s extremely driven to improve on the last three years.
“I think every year you have a great sense of urgency because you just never know, you never know how things are going to shake out,” Ryan said Wednesday, looking ahead to the season opener against NFC South rival Tampa Bay.
“Obviously, we won a lot of games my first five years, and that hasn’t been the case the last three, but none of that matters. What matters is this season. For me, is there extra motivation? I think your motivation continues to build the longer you play in your career. I think you become more and more motivated to be great, to play at a high level and to win more games.”
A year ago, he never seemed to find his comfort zone with new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Even with one of the league’s best receivers in Julio Jones, Ryan threw only 21 touchdown passes (the lowest since his rookie year in 2008), was picked off 16 times (the second-highest total of his career) and wound up with a rating of 89.0 (his worst since 2009).
That put him 20th in the NFL, right between Oakland’s Derek Carr and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill. In other words, not exactly an elite quarterback neighborhood — especially for someone who got a $103 million contract extension three years ago.
There was plenty of speculation about Shanahan’s future after the Falcons squandered a 5-0 start last season, finishing 8-8 to miss the playoffs for the third year in a row.
But Shanahan is back for his second season, and Ryan expects a much more cohesive relationship.
“I think a lot was made about a little,” Ryan said. “Anytime you’re not winning a bunch of games, you’re always looking to see what you can do to be better.”
What made last year’s performance really stand out — and not in a good way — was a perplexing series of turnovers.
Ryan was picked off four times in the red zone, something you just don’t expect from a seasoned quarterback who supposedly spends as much time in the film room as anyone. He also lost five fumbles.
“The thing that we got in trouble with as an offense last year was turnovers,” Quinn said. “That part of our game was a significant one. We performed well in a lot of areas, a lot of areas. We played extremely well on third down … we ran it well, we had explosive plays, but we didn’t take care of the ball well as a group.”
Ryan knows he’s got to cut down on the silly mistakes. There’s no need to force a play when he’s got weapons around him such as Jones and running back Devonta Freeman.
“You want to play really aggressive at the quarterback position,” Ryan said. “The turnovers you want to eliminate are the ones you can control. They’re going to happen. That’s part of the game. But you want to take back the ones where you feel like you just gave them one.”
There’s no thought, at least within the organization, of making a dramatic change in course.
Ryan is the Falcons’ undisputed leader, for better or worse.
“He’s going to be successful,” said defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux, the only longer-tenured member of the Falcons than Ryan. “It’s just a matter of how successful he’s going to be.”