FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The question has been phrased to Mike Smith in so many ways that the Atlanta Falcons coach is no doubt annoyed with the inquiries by now.
But no matter how the suggestion of resting quarterback Matt Ryan over the last two games is made, Smith is certain to stick with his philosophy: Play the best players -- at least at the start of the game -- regardless of the team's 4-10 record.
"Again, our No. 1 goal is to win the football game," Smith reiterated Thursday. "And having Matt Ryan on the field … we haven't given up on this year.
"I know people sit here and say, 'Are they playing for draft rank?' I can assure you this: There's nobody that goes out and wants to lose a football game. You only get 16 opportunities to do it, and you put your best people out there on the field. And Matt is head and shoulders better than any quarterback that we have on this team."
Ryan also could take a significant blow to his literal head or shoulder if he continues to get hit the way he has through the first 14 games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan has been sacked or hit while throwing on 8.4 percent of his dropbacks. That's an increase from last season, when Ryan was hit or sacked on 6.8 percent of his dropbacks. Ryan has been sacked a career-high 34 times. His previous career high was 28, last season. Ryan said Thursday that he "feels good" despite the increased number of hits absorbed.
Only one offensive lineman -- left guard Justin Blalock -- has started every game, which tells you how much instability there has been along the line because of injury or poor play. And now the Falcons are set to face the hard-hitting San Francisco 49ers, who left Ryan with his left shoulder in a sling after last season's NFC Championship Game. Ryan suffered a Grade 2 AC joint sprain absorbing a hit from 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Surely, the Falcons don't want their $100 million quarterback to be in the same position this offseason.
"There are a lot of factors in terms of evaluating protection of your quarterback," Smith said. "Sack numbers are overrated on both sides of the football. I think you have to look at the number of times a quarterback has been hit. And our numbers are different than what the stats people have.
"When you get this far into the season, guys are going to be banged-up."
The Falcons just hope Ryan doesn't get banged-up long-term. With the 49ers and Carolina Panthers still playing for playoff positioning, the next two games potentially could get away from the Falcons. In such a case, the team no doubt would opt to sit Ryan in favor of backup Dominique Davis.