Matt Ryan: The Competitor’s Mindset
I hadn’t spoken with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the offseason until I saw him in mid-August in training camp. In fact, the last time I saw him before camp was in the postgame mosh pit of the Super Bowl interview room, where he handled himself well after the worst loss of his career.
I’d heard the Falcons had zipped their lips about the Super Bowl, but I wanted to find out for myself. As usual, Ryan, sitting on a bleacher in the shade in back of the Falcons’ training complex, didn’t disappoint. I didn’t have to ask a lot of questions. Here’s Ryan, stream of consciousness...
“When you hear Michael Jordan talk about a big loss, or J.J. Watt, Peyton or Eli Manning, Serena Williams—it's one of those things, it's always there a little bit,” Ryan said. “It's always the thing that burns or makes you want to get up and do the work that you have to do in order to be successful. It's not all-consuming. I think that is probably the best way to describe it. For me I knew I had moved on when I started training again and working toward what I wanted to accomplish this year, and I was able to answer questions and talk about it and really not go back to that place of being frustrated or disappointed with the outcome. That's really where I felt like I could move on. I feel good now. It's in there somewhere and you use it as motivation to get up out of bed to go to work.
“[Coach] Dan Quinn was really good about it following the game. His attitude was, ‘Hey, let's watch this thing. Let's deal with it now, when the wound is still fresh.’ Really smart, rather than to wait and wait and wait to watch it because you’re so angry. So we got back Monday and I was in here Tuesday, watching it and going through it. His advice was, ‘Flush it from your system as fast as you can and start getting focused on what is in front of you as fast as you can.’
“I watched it here at the facility, on my own. I watched it three times.
“When it doesn't go your way, everybody is going to second guess how you went about it. I thought we went about it the way we went about it all year. From that standpoint, you have to feel good about yourself in some way. We went out, we attacked, we made some plays, they made one or two more at the end of the game than we did, and that's kind of the way it goes. It was a weird game offensively for us, because I don't know how many snaps we had in that game, but it wasn't a lot. With them having so many offensive plays, we didn't have that many and we created a ton of explosive plays offensively. We fell a little bit short, deal with it and move on.”
I asked him how hard it was to be civil 20 minutes after a game like a Super Bowl loss when your team blows a 25-point lead.
“Obviously you are disappointed and angry and frustrated and pissed, all those things. But you know, I have always been taught and learned from a lot of different people, that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. I felt like it was the right way to handle it at the time. It's not always easy to do the right thing, but it's part of our job, right? That's part of what we do. Usually you are better off just dealing with it and moving forward. That's how I think. Rip the Band-Aid. Go do it, and be done with it and then get out of there.”
Around the Falcons, there was change on both sides of the ball, with new coordinators Marquand Manuel on defense (very familiar with the Dan Quinn defense) and Steve Sarkisian on offense (an imaginative sort who will meld his philosophy with the Kyle Shanahan way that was not broken). There has been a steadiness of approach emanating from Quinn, who hasn’t ignored the Super Bowl but hasn’t harped on it either.
Quinn believes there are ways to get incrementally better each year—which every coach should believe, of course. He also believes that football players are not necessarily like the public or the sports media, in that losses don’t haunt players the way those in the outside world think they might. When I think about this, I think about Julio Jones, for instance. Great player. Also not a big football fan. When he goes home, he doesn’t relax by watching two college games on Saturdays. He just lives. So will there be a hangover? There could be; we’ll see. If I’m Atlanta, I like my opening month: at Chicago, Green Bay at home (to open the new $1.6-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium), at Detroit, Buffalo at home, bye; and I like four of the last six at home.
Ryan thinks the balance between reflection on the loss and why it happened, and not obsessing over it, has been the right thing. Around the team, the players seem to have moved on.
“It happened, you deal with it, you learn from it and then you move on,” Ryan said. “I think we have the right group of guys to move forward, as opposed to keep looking back at what could have been. It might not be normal for people to think that. I think that everybody might think we keep hanging onto these things. We're not like that.
“What I’ve been more about, especially as I get along in my career, is finding a way to get 1 percent better. It's harder to do, the longer you play, to get those incremental improvements. But for me, it was going back to the same things. As the year goes on and you get hit, and you move more, you kind of get out of position a little bit with how you throw and your mechanics and getting your feet underneath you. And I think when you get back to work, I went out to California again and worked with [quarterback mechanics gurus] Adam Dedeaux and Tom House and just got back to the fundamentals. It's amazing that in all sports, regardless of what it is, however long you play, when you get the fundamentals correct and you get everything going from the ground up, how quickly you get back to your best form. And that was it for me, trying to get back to where I was and trying to get a little better. And sleep. One of the things that I have gotten more and more into, in all honesty, is getting enough sleep. I'm like a 9-to-6, super-early-to-bed guy now.”
I told Ryan I recalled Jim Kelly, at training camp after Buffalo’s fourth Super Bowl loss, looking at me incredulously when I asked if he’d considered walking away from football because the pain of losing was so acute. Kelly said, basically, You’re kidding, right? I love this game. I couldn’t think of doing anything that’s a tenth as fun, even when you lose Super Bowls.
“That's the competitor's mindset, right?” Ryan said. “My thing is, what else would you rather be doing? This is a pretty good gig if you can get it.”