Friday June 11th, 2010

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons' slogan for the 2010 season is "RISE UP." You see the words on highway billboards and window placards, often superimposed over a game image of quarterback Matt Ryan. That's fitting because the team is asking its franchise player to raise his game this year by taking ownership of the offense.

The former Boston College star had a solid rookie season in 2008, throwing for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. But his play was uneven last year, when he sandwiched a fast start and strong finish around a six-game stretch in which he threw as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns.

With Ryan now entering his third season, coach Mike Smith believes it's time for his polite young star to increase his involvement with game plans and play selections. He wants Ryan to speak up in meetings, practices and games about what he likes and doesn't like, as well as what he believes will and won't work.

"I believe all successful teams, all successful businesses, have that type of open interaction," Smith says. "If you don't have that interaction, if you don't have that communication, you probably are not going to reach the potential that you are capable of."

There's no question the Falcons' fortunes hinge on the continued development of Ryan. He threw for 22 touchdowns with 14 interceptions in 14 starts last season, but had drop-offs from his rookie year in completion percentage, yards passing, yards per attempt and QB rating. More notable, his six fourth-quarter interceptions were three times his rookie total.

Some of it had to do with Ryan battling turf toe late in the year, as well as other key players being slowed or out with injuries. But some of it also could have been due to Ryan's hesitancy to step on toes. That won't be an issue this year, particularly with Smith pushing for increased communication.

"That's part of being a quarterback, for sure," Ryan says. "You can have whatever personality you want, but when push comes to shove, you're the one out there on the field. The role is something that evolves and, for sure, I'm a different person three years into it than I was in Year One. I think I've stepped into that role that they're talking about."

Teammates have noticed.

"The past two years he was more hesitant to express his opinion, but now he's a lot more open to it," says running back Michael Turner. "You can see it in meetings. He interrupts all the time and is like, 'I want to do this. Let's do it this way.' "

Ryan is quick to point out he's not trying to usurp the authority of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. He stresses that coaches invest significant time in scouting opponents and learning the strengths and weaknesses of each Atlanta player. Still, there's no denying that Ryan has a unique perspective because he's the one behind center.

To that end, he spent the early part of the offseason studying high-scoring offenses whose personnel is similar to the Falcons. He requested offensive game tapes of the Colts, Patriots, Chargers and Packers -- and took a peek at the Saints -- to see what they were doing and whether there were things the Falcons could incorporate.

Ryan also studied each of the teams' quarterbacks to see what made them so effective. He was particularly impressed with Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and New England's Tom Brady because of their patience.

"Peyton can consistently take the underneath route when it's given to him and not even think about going to that next route until they take '[the underneath] away," he says. "It's amazing how precise he is with that. And once they do take away the underneath route, he hits them for a chunk and it's a big play. It's impressive to watch that. It's impressive to see how disciplined he is."

Ryan has been Manning-like in his detail on the practice field this offseason. Everything he does has a meaning behind it. He experiments only during one-on-one drills. Team sessions are like game situations. He wants everything sharp, clicking.

"When we get to those team periods, for me it's about making the right read every time, putting the ball exactly where it needs to go every time," he says. "I certainly know for myself I'm doing a better job of that this year."

Under Ryan, the Falcons have posted the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history, but failed to make the playoffs in 2009 after a wild-card berth in 2008. Ryan, in his expanding role as team leader, believes some of that was directly linked to last offseason, when some "loose ends" weren't tied up.

"That's not to say there were a lot of loose ends last year, because I don't think there were, but there were things that we could tighten up," he says. "Like in the meetings during OTAs; make sure that we're locked in, that we're being productive. I think we've done a really good job of that this year ... making sure that the last 15 or 20 minutes, when you've been in there an hour or an hour and a half, that you stay sharp. It's easy to do game week because you have an opponent that weekend and you're going to be out there for everyone to see and the consequences are there immediately. But it's tough at this point of the year. You have to fight through it."

The more Ryan speaks, the more his determination becomes apparent. For instance, when asked how much better he can get, he says: "I can make significant strides from my first two years, and I'm hell bent on getting there."

Sound like a player who's ready to rise up?

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