On the heels of the fiascos involving Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino, Smith and Ryan arrived in Atlanta back in 2008. Instantly, they brought stability and credibility to a franchise that had fallen into disarray.
They’ve been winning, comfortably and calmly, ever since. They’ve had four straight winning seasons together, and that’s been joyful for a franchise that hadn’t had back-to-back winning seasons before Smith and Ryan arrived. Three of those seasons have included 10 or more wins. The Falcons are also about to make their third playoff appearance in four seasons, and Ryan established career bests for passing yards and touchdowns during the regular season.
Everything looks just fantastic for the Falcons.
But let’s push a little beyond the surface, and you’ll see this is a franchise at a critical juncture.
When the Falcons play the New York Giants on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, anything less than a victory will be a major disappointment for the Falcons. The franchise has fallen on good times, but there’s a problem with that.
It’s not enough simply to be good every year. Smith has talked several times about how the organization’s goal is not just to make the playoffs.
Smith and Ryan have never won a playoff game. They lost one they were expected to lose to Arizona in the 2008 season. They lost another to Green Bay last season when they were the No. 1 seed and the Packers were the No. 6 seed.
“There was a common theme in terms of that you can’t turn the football over,’’ Smith said. “That was the most pressing thing and both of them happened right, if you remember correctly, they both happened, one right before halftime last season and Arizona I think was the first or second play of the second half. We came out and turned the ball over and it was returned for a touchdown as well. It’s no different than regular-season football, but we’ve got to make sure that we have ball security. We cannot turn the football over in the postseason. It’s imperative.’’
Yeah, the turnovers were a common theme in the previous two playoff losses, and there’s no shame in losing to teams that went on to the Super Bowl. But here’s where that tension beneath the surface starts to ooze out.
The Falcons can’t continue to lose playoff games. A loss to the Giants will start the rumblings that Smith might be the second coming of Norv Turner -- a really nice guy who can’t win when it matters. Right after that, you’ll start hearing how Ryan’s not an elite quarterback because he can’t win big games.
When you talk to him, Ryan is as smooth a conversationalist as you’ll find. He calls reporters by name and he’ll chitchat about their hometowns or the hat of the college football team they’re wearing. He’s nicknamed Matty Ice, and he’ll tell you he doesn’t feel pressure to get the playoff monkey off his back.
“Not that much,’’ Ryan said. “I think the past doesn’t really make a difference. We had opportunities; we didn’t take advantage of those. What matters is we put ourselves in this position again and we have an opportunity to move forward. So I don’t worry about it too much. I kind of just focus on trying to prepare and play well this week and doing everything we can to take advantage of the opportunity that we have.”
One thing has become clear so far in Ryan’s career: He’s always going to say the right thing. But there is pressure percolating just under the surface for Ryan, Smith and the rest of the Falcons and, despite their denials and calm demeanor, they have to be starting to feel it.
Forget that playoff loss to Arizona in the 2008 season. That was Ryan’s rookie year, the Falcons were on the road and Arizona was a team of destiny. But that loss to the Packers in the Georgia Dome in last season’s playoffs?
Point to that as the source of all the pressure that’s growing around the Falcons now. Atlanta went 13-3 last season and had a first-round bye. The Falcons were rested and healthy, but the Packers came to town and blew them out, 48-21.
After the game, Smith and Ryan looked as flustered as they’ve ever been. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank are two other guys who look pretty calm most of the time, but you could almost see the smoke coming out of their ears that day, because they had seen a team that they thought was going to the Super Bowl get thoroughly embarrassed.
After things settled down a bit, Smith, Dimitroff and Blank sat down and decided they weren’t too far away. What they learned from the Green Bay loss was that they needed more explosiveness on both sides of the ball.
That’s why the Falcons made the daring trade that allowed them to draft wide receiver Julio Jones, and that’s why they signed defensive end Ray Edwards to a big contract in free agency. A lot of people said the Falcons were shooting for the Super Bowl or bust.
The expectations were raised but not met during the regular season. The Falcons struggled with inconsistency and finished 10-6. At times they were very good; at other times they were ordinary. But the playoffs bring a chance for Atlanta to finally meet those expectations.
“It’s more intense,’’ Smith said. “I think it’s more intense in your preparation as a football team. It starts early in the week and I think it becomes a very intense, energetic time when you’re playing in the playoffs because it’s a situation where you’re not going to have another game if you don’t win. Everybody’s playing to play through the end of January and into February.”
But the Falcons haven’t made it to the end of January or anywhere close to February in their previous tries. They’re on very stable ground, but you can’t stand still forever.
Blank has learned from and grown from past mistakes. He’s thrilled with the stability Smith and Ryan have brought to his franchise. But Blank’s also a competitive guy and he’s not going to be patient forever.
The same is true of the Atlanta fans. The consistent winning for four seasons has been nice.
But if Smith, Ryan and the rest of the Falcons are going to ease the pressure that’s simmering just below the surface, they need to win a playoff game. If they don’t, the peace and calm that’s surrounded the Falcons the past four years will start to disappear.