Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ryan Gives Falcons Hope, New Identity

By Pat Yasinskas |

It doesn't really matter if Matt Ryan turns out to be the next Peyton Manning or the second coming of David Carr. He's already done a lot for the Atlanta Falcons.

In the seconds after commissioner Roger Goodell announced the Boston College quarterback as the No. 3 overall pick, Ryan put on an Atlanta hat, held up a jersey and smiled.

When's the last time you saw an Atlanta quarterback smile? When's the last time you saw anybody with the Falcons smile?

"It's exciting to be a Falcon,'' Ryan said. "I was pumped up when I received the phone call and I just can't wait to get to Atlanta.'' It's hard to find precise records, but it's believed those exact words have been uttered only once before in history -- by Steve Bartkowski, 33 years ago. This franchise never has had a lot of good days, but the past year has been particularly brutal. Franchise quarterback Michael Vick went to prison on dogfighting charges. Coach Bobby Petrino jumped to Arkansas in the middle of the night without telling his players. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall talked his way out of town, and running back Warrick Dunn and tight end Alge Crumpler -- about the only two remaining Falcons who would be recognized in an Atlanta mall -- were part of an offseason salary purge.

For the past few months, the Falcons were a franchise without a heart, a soul or a face. Now, they've got all three. Now, the healing can begin. That's what this pick was all about. From a pure football standpoint, there might have been better short-term alternatives. Maybe defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey could have stepped right into new coach Mike Smith's defense and made a more immediate impact. Or maybe just about any of the offensive tackles in this draft could have opened holes for new running back Michael Turner and been a Pro Bowler for the next decade. And maybe the Falcons could have stayed mediocre for another decade while Atlanta continued to ignore them and focus on the Braves and Georgia Bulldogs. Yeah, it still could play out that way, even with Ryan. But that worst-case scenario is a lot of interceptions and a few years down the road. For the moment, Ryan brings hope to what was a hopeless situation. No other player in this draft could create as much optimism as Ryan. He is, after all, a quarterback, and quarterbacks are the first players people think of when they think of a football team. "The Falcons absolutely have to take Ryan,'' a general manager for another NFC team said the day before the draft. Ryan has more ability than any quarterback in this year's draft. He's got prototypical size (6-foot-5, 220 pounds), a strong arm and all the apparent intangibles. The Falcons, who also traded back into the first round to draft Southern California offensive tackle Sam Baker to protect Ryan's blind side, no longer have to try to convince their fans (and probably some of their own players) that Chris Redman or Joey Harrington can be starters in the NFL.

But this choice wasn't just about taking a passer who broke some of Doug Flutie's records and won a bunch of games.

This was also about erasing the bitter memories of Vick and Petrino. Anyone who thought Vick might return to the Falcons after he's released from a federal penitentiary now can forget it. As a highly drafted quarterback, Ryan's going to face big expectations, although he's probably going to get a pretty significant grace period. But most importantly, Ryan's going to start with a clean slate. So are the Falcons.

Within minutes after the selection, the Falcons were selling Ryan jerseys on their Web site (No. 8 for $78.50). They'll sell some tickets down the road, too, and that had to factor heavily into that decision.

"To get a quarterback and a left tackle, I'm sure they're excited in Atlanta,'' Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "They should be.'' This spring, excitement -- instead of indictment -- is the buzzword suddenly surrounding the Falcons. You've got to believe that's what Falcons owner Arthur Blank wanted, and needed, more than anything. Throughout the hiring of Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff, it repeatedly was made clear the new tandem would have final say over football decisions, and that's a wonderful thing. It never came close to reaching the Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones level, but Blank had been accused of getting too involved in football matters in the past. Drafting Ryan was a decision Smith, who has a defensive background, and Dimitroff, who was part of a New England front office that got franchise quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round, had a huge say in. Smith and Dimitroff knew what they were getting into when they took their jobs. They knew they had to get better football players. They knew they'd have to win some games and they knew they'd have to win back their fans. They knew football and business decisions would go hand in hand. Forget about final say for a second. The first big decision Smith and Dimitroff made really was the only one that made sense.