• Partly based on Matt Ryan's solid 9-of-15, 117-yard, one-touchdown showing in his NFL debut at Jacksonville on Saturday night, and partly based on the rave reviews I heard coming from Falcons decision makers, I'd be surprised if the rookie quarterback isn't Atlanta's opening-day starter against visiting Detroit.
The rebuilding Falcons could still opt to play it safe with the No. 3 overall pick and go with veteran Chris Redman as their starter for the first few weeks of the season, but I think that's becoming more of a long shot by the day. The key factor will be Atlanta's offensive line as Week 1 looms. If the Falcons feel they can properly protect Ryan, I get the sense they'll be hard-pressed to find a reason to keep him off the field.
Standing alongside new Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff during a morning practice, I heard him detail just how many things he already likes about Ryan's still-formulating NFL game. Namely, how the ex-Boston College star already has a good sense for where to go with the football on most plays, and how his command of both Atlanta's offense and the Falcons huddle has grown by leaps and bounds since the team's offseason mini-camp.
Ryan "has a nice feel for sliding around in the pocket, with the ability to feel the pressure and get away from it,'' Dimitroff told me, likening it to that trademark part of Tom Brady's game in New England, Dimitroff's former employer. "You have to like the way he stands tall in the pocket and the poise he already shows back there.''
The Falcons are also very impressed with Ryan's intelligence, quick absorption of information, and the resiliency he has already shown in dealing with the growth process of a young quarterback. They're convinced the task of starting early as a rookie won't be too big for him. Talking to Ryan for 15 minutes last week, I got the same vibe.
"It's a learning curve, and he knows that. But he has a great outlook on it,'' new Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "He's already told me, 'Coach, I want to be your quarterback from Day 1.' But right now he knows it's day to day.''
With Atlanta likely looking up at the Saints, Bucs and Panthers in the NFC South, the feeling seems to be the Falcons and Ryan will grow up together this season, and the sooner they get that process started, the better. Maybe that's why Atlanta's preseason opener at Jacksonville -- a 20-17 Jags win -- wasn't even nine minutes old Saturday night when Ryan took the field, replacing Redman.
The rookie responded well to a lot of different looks from the Jaguars, who had most of their talented first-team defense on the field against him. His nine completions were to six receivers -- always a sign a young QB is reading the field well -- and Falcons veterans were especially impressed with the 11-play, 74-yard, 5:46 scoring drive that culminated in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to receiver Roddy White. At one point, Ryan completed seven-of-eight passes over the course of his second and third drives, and he was 9-of-13 after starting with two incompletions.
"Whatever it is, I just want to keep knocking out those firsts,'' Ryan told me last week. "The first practice, the first scrimmage, the first preseason game. Keep knocking them out, so you've got more experience under your belt.''
Ryan got his first touchdown pass out of the way with the second-quarter toss to White, and he even got his career's first significant souvenir, scooping up the ball he threw for the score after White left it on the field. I'm guessing he knocks another first off his list this week, when the Falcons may start him in their preseason home opener against the Colts on Saturday night. If he has another strong showing in that one, the start-Ryan-from-Day-1 express is only going to pick up steam.
The best thing I see and hear about Ryan is he knows he can only buy himself credibility among his teammates by producing on the field. He can't talk his way into becoming the centerpiece of the Falcons' franchise. He has to first perform, and then that mantle gets bestowed. He gets that. Surprisingly, not every rookie first-round quarterback does (think early Matt Leinart in Arizona).
"I think I've gotten a lot better, and the good thing about it is it's kind of been a consistent curve,'' Ryan said of his first three-months-plus as a Falcon. "The biggest thing for me is to get in here and learn and pull my weight on the field, in order to gain my teammates' respect. That takes time. That kind of stuff doesn't happen overnight. You can't come in and say, 'Hey, I'm going to work hard.' It's about coming in and keeping your head down and letting your actions speak louder than your words, and that's what I've been trying to do.''
Ryan's actions have begun to do the talking. And they're saying he's headed for the starting lineup maybe than anyone first imagined.
• Wow, what a difference a year can make. Last summer about now, I visited the Falcons' Michael Vick-less and Bobby Petrino-led training camp and came away with the sense there was a combustible mix in place that was roughly the football equivalent of the Hindenburg's launching of its maiden voyage. And things went boom all right, with the capper coming when Petrino did that disgusting "Woo, Pig Sooey!'' cheer at the press conference announcing his hiring as the Arkansas' head coach.
But this year's trip to Flowery Branch felt completely different, as if a sense of sanity has returned to Atlanta's spacious team complex. As mentioned earlier, there's new in every direction you look. Has an NFL ever broken in a new general manager (Thomas Dimitroff), a new head coach (Mike Smith), a new franchise quarterback (Ryan), a new lead running back (Michael Turner) and a new kicker (Jason Elam) all in the same season? And let's not forget that Dimitroff notes the Falcons have turned over more than 50 percent of their roster.
I'm not saying Atlanta will be significantly better than last year's 4-12 record. It may not be, and I'd pick the Falcons for last place in the NFC South if I had to choose today. But every indicator I get tells me Dimitroff and Smith have put a solid plan in place, and they're building a program rather than just preparing for another season.
The Falcons had descended into a chaotic mess the past two years, and it'll take time to undo all the damage done. But I get the early hunch Dimitroff and Smith know what they're doing, and so do the veteran Falcons players I talked to.
Linebacker Keith Brooking is one of the survivors of the 2007 season. He knows how poisonous the atmosphere was last year under Petrino, whose heart never really seemed into the job before he quit on the team after 13 games of his rookie season as an NFL head coach.
"For the guys who were here last year and are here this year, the working environment is at the opposite end of the spectrum,'' Brooking told me. "I have a tremendous respect for my teammates, for the guys who endured last year. I almost even relish those tough times that will come this year, because after what we went through last year, we'll be ready for anything.
"The distractions we were dealing with last year were unbelievable. I tried my best to be a positive team leader and tried to see what the coaches wanted us to do. But if you don't have guys buying into your coach's program, you don't have a chance to win in this league. This year we've got guys all pulling on the same end of the rope.''
Brooking, a Georgia native who was selected out of Georgia Tech in the first round of the 1998 draft, is Mr. Falcon. As he enters his 11th season in Atlanta, he's the last remaining member of the franchise's lone Super Bowl qualifier, the '98 Falcons. Brooking turns 33 in October, and he's probably a year-to-year roster consideration for Atlanta at this point in his career. But while a rebuilding program can't be music to his veteran ears, he said he and his teammates are willing to follow wherever Dimitroff and Smith lead.
"I see guys buying into the system this year,'' he said. "We have confidence in coach Smith and we're willing to bend over backward to get things done the way he wants them done. He has worked extremely hard to open lines of communication with the players. There aren't a lot of rules and regulations, but he has his expectations set out for us.
"We have great chemistry and great commitment this year. Rebuilding isn't the most ideal situation for me, but I'm not of the mindset that we're rebuilding this year. The way I feel about it is, if we all buy in, we could win some games this year and compete for the NFL playoffs.''
• Here's something smart Smith and Dimitroff did that spoke volumes to the Falcons players who lived through the nightmare of 2007: Late last month they brought back veteran defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who was both popular among his teammates and an effective run-stuffer before being unceremoniously run out of town by Petrino last October. Jackson got in Petrino's doghouse early on for being one of several Falcons veterans who refused to quietly abide the dictatorial ways and aloofness of the rookie head coach.
By restoring Jackson to a locker room where he was once greatly appreciated, the new Falcons brass was telling the players it knows where blame for last year's mistakes lie. The brass also did a favor for Falcons linebackers, because Jackson can still keep two blockers at a time off linebackers.
• Smith told me he has an open-door policy with his players, and they're free to come upstairs and speak to him about any issue at any time. I'm guessing, however, the Falcons had to tape arrows on the carpet pointing to Smith's office, because it's obvious no Atlanta player made that trip from the locker room to the head coach's desk last year.
• So much of what the Falcons hope to accomplish this season would seem to rest on whether rookie first-round offensive tackle Sam Baker can handle the key left tackle assignment. Baker had a pretty strong showing in his NFL debut against the Jaguars, seeing about 40 snaps of action and fending off three Jacksonville defensive ends, including veteran Paul Spicer and rookie Quentin Groves, without giving up a sack.
While Atlanta was criticized for trading back into the first round to use the 21st pick on Baker, who held more of a consensus second-round grade, none of that will be remembered if he solidifies a Falcons offensive line that gave up 47 sacks (almost three per game) and mustered just 3.9 rushing yards on average last season. Atlanta started four left tackles in 2007, and a repeat of that scenario would be disastrous with a rookie quarterback starting.
• Receiver Joe Horn is still hanging around, but probably for not much longer. Horn has been nursing a hamstring injury this preseason, and the Falcons are hoping once he heals he'll serve as trade bait for some team with injury problems of their own at receiver. Horn, who has a $2.5 million guaranteed base salary this year, won't bring much in return. But he is open to restructuring his deal to facilitate a trade, and something would be better than nothing for a guy Atlanta would likely wind up either releasing or reaching an injury settlement with.
Horn, 36, is way down the Falcons receiving depth chart after blowing off the team's OTAs this offseason. He asked to be traded a few months ago, but the Falcons are at least grateful that the 13-year veteran hasn't been the squeaky wheel that he could have been. Horn still can't seem to get over the fact that he came to Atlanta to catch passes from Vick, but fate intervened.
• Though Curtis Lofton is running second-team behind second-year man Tony Taylor at the moment, the Falcons expect the second-round pick to emerge as the team's starting middle linebacker. That plan allowed Atlanta to shift Brooking back outside to the weakside slot, where his playmaking skills led him to make multiple Pro Bowl trips earlier this decade.
If there's a surprise in Falcons camp at linebacker, however, it's on the strongside, where ex-Bill Coy Wire has been impressive as Michael Boley's backup. Wire, who played at both safety and linebacker in Buffalo for six seasons, signed with the Falcons just before camp opened. The Bills released him after he underwent surgery last winter to repair nerve damage in his neck. It was causing numbness in his fingers and right arm weakness, that in the wake of Kevin Everett's career-ending spine injury in Buffalo last season.