Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco lived parallel lives a year ago, two rookies who learned the art of NFL quarterbacking in real time. In Baltimore, a rash of summer injuries pushed Flacco up the depth chart. In Atlanta, Ryan beat out a few journeymen for the right to replace a city's fallen icon. In both scenarios, the quarterbacks made the jump look remarkably seamless.
"The amazing thing is that they did it so early in their career -- they didn't slip," said Kevin Gilbride, the Giants offensive coordinator, speaking Thursday at a fundraiser for the 2009 TriState Walk for PKD. "I think they'll both be better [this season]."
After Ryan and Flacco helped lead their teams to the playoffs, how can they avoid backsliding in their upcoming sophomore campaigns?
Gilbride, who has coached Warren Moon, Drew Bledsoe and Eli Manning, among others, said much of Ryan and Flacco's success in 2009 will depend on two factors -- carrying the confidence and work ethic that brought them to great heights last season, and being able to depend on the talent on the roster.
"A quarterback will only play as well as the guys around him, but I would fully expect them to be better," Gilbride said. "They can't help but be proud of the success they had."
Ryan was joined in the backfield by an effective running back in Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 TDs last season. Flacco's Ravens, who also relied heavily on the run, often won games with the NFL's second-ranked defense. But the quarterbacks also displayed a tangible cool under center in a faster, more complex game. That neither quarterback seemed awed by the task spoke to each one's mental maturity as much as physical.
Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens general manager, said Flacco's entry into a huddle reminded him of Bernie Kosar's calm stepping into the Cleveland Browns huddle as a rookie in 1985. After going 4-6 in 10 starts in his first season, Kosar led the Browns to a 12-4 record in '86. Other quarterbacks have had similar improvement. Troy Aikman went from 0-11 as a starter in '89 to 7-8 the following year. Peyton Manning went from 3-13 to 13-3. Donovan McNabb improved to 11-5 after a 2-4 start as a rookie.
Ryan and Flacco's handle of the rigors of the position should only deepen. Gilbride recalled scouting Flacco during the quarterback's senior year at Delaware, trying to project his future in the NFL.
"I saw three games," Gilbride said. "In the first two games I thought that he could be a good NFL quarterback, maybe a backup."
Then Delaware played Navy. Flacco threw for 434 yards and four touchdowns. "That's when I thought, 'This guy could be a star,'" Gilbride said.
Like Flacco, Ryan's trajectory should continue to rise in his second year after throwing for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns as a rookie (Flacco threw for 2,971 yards and 14 touchdowns). Falcons coach Mike Smith acknowledged as much during the Falcons OTAs this week, saying Ryan's handle of the offense and his confidence are higher than they were a year ago. Ryan, too, talked about his expectations: limiting mistakes, improving his decision-making, even sharpening the use of his practice reps.
Though both Ryan and Flacco enjoyed dream-like rookie seasons, each must understand that the '09 season will not unfold the same way, no matter how much was accomplished in Year 1.
This, ultimately, is the quarterback's burden, that no matter what high points and potholes a team hits, he remains the face of the franchise in all seasons. He is the guy who touches the football more than any other. He is the man who knows that praise and criticism come in heavy doses. He is the reason a team will eventual thrive or fail.
"Everything," said 49ers coach Mike Singletary, "starts with the quarterback."