FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Go ahead and say Matt Ryan had a "sophomore slump" last season. Pull out all the numbers you want (some are better and some worse than his rookie year) or point to the fact the Falcons did not make the playoffs.
Go ahead, say Ryan took a step back after leading the Atlanta Falcons to a surprise playoff run as a rookie. Do it.
You'll be wrong. There was no "slump." Yeah, there were some ups and downs. But when I look back at Ryan's second season, I see a guy who made progress. In fact, I see a guy who probably graduated to the next level. You might not realize it yet, but you will.
What Ryan did in the last three games went largely unnoticed as the Falcons fell from the playoff picture. But in those three games Ryan established himself as the unquestioned leader of the team and laid the groundwork for a season in which the Falcons could be the NFC South's biggest challenger to the New Orleans Saints.
"In terms of sophomore slump, I don't believe that at all," coach Mike Smith said. "We didn't get the wins that we wanted, but I thought Matt made progress. We gave him more in terms of what we asked him to do and I thought he operated the offense very effectively. We'll continue to expand that in Year 3."
Before we get to Year 3, let's finish up Year 2 because what happened at the end might be a whole lot more significant than you realize. Ryan suffered a toe injury early in a Nov. 29 game against Tampa Bay. The team doctors told Smith that Ryan wouldn't be able to play for six to eight weeks. In other words, his season should have been over and, at that point, you might have been able to make a strong case for the "sophomore slump."
With backup Chris Redman playing, the Falcons lost their next two games. But a strange thing happened after that, and it might turn out to be more impressive than anything Ryan did as a rookie. Almost miraculously, Ryan's toe got healthy enough that he was able to play the last three games.
He still was wobbly and his numbers weren't anything special. But the important thing is that Ryan's return allowed the Falcons to win their final three games and turn a star-crossed season (there were lots of injuries besides the one to Ryan) into something of a success. At 9-7, the Falcons didn't make the playoffs, but they finished with back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
That means the Falcons aren't at some sort of starting point as they head into the 2010 season. They've already started their ascent and they've got something really solid to build upon.
"I think I definitely made strides from Year 1 to Year 2," Ryan said. "I think the biggest thing is being consistent. I've got to continue to get better at that. The biggest key is to be more consistent, especially on first and second down. I think there's room for improvement for myself, for our offense and for our team on first and second down to be more productive. That's going to be the focus of this offseason."
You hear things like that from quarterbacks all around the league at this point of the year. But it's a little different with Ryan and the Falcons. In their case, the consistency actually might be easier done than said. Ryan and the Falcons don't like to use injuries as excuses, so I'll do it for them.
Atlanta's offense never really had a chance to get off the ground last year. The Falcons lost receiver Harry Douglas to injury early in training camp. Running back Michael Turner struggled early in the season and, just when he started getting on track, he suffered an ankle injury that hobbled him for about half the season. Backup Jerious Norwood also was banged up and the Falcons suffered several injuries across the offensive line.
Turner is healthy now and appeared to be in much better physical condition at minicamp than he was a year ago. Douglas is still rehabbing, but should be ready to go by training camp. The offensive linemen are healthy and the draft brought some depth in that department.
"Obviously, our game was changed a lot without Michael and even some of our offensive linemen having injuries," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Harry Douglas was going to be a very important producer for us almost side-by-side with what we thought was going to happen with Tony Gonzalez underneath and then the multi-move routes that Harry Douglas was going to run, we had some high expectations from that offense. We were plagued by injuries from the outset, but I'm proud of how that whole locker room hung in there."
Long story short, the Falcons never really got to run their offense in 2009. They're not going into intricate details of what's in their mind for 2010, but you get a sense there will be some tweaks made to play to Ryan's strengths. After all, Ryan is "the franchise" and that fact was hammered home a few weeks ago when he had dinner with owner Arthur Blank. It was nothing extraordinary -- Blank generally meets with his key players in the offseason. The owner makes it a point to stay out of the football side of things, but he likes to have a relationship with his players and talk about the big picture for the franchise.
"He just shared some of his experiences of dealing with different things and expressed to me what his vision for me is within the organization," Ryan said. "I don't think it's all that much different from the way I've approached it the first two years. But, with that said, maybe it's a bigger role. It was a great conversation and something that I was excited to hear. Anytime that you have the full support of the owner, that feels really good. I appreciate his words and the relationship we have."
Blank talked a little about leadership. That's never been a problem with Ryan. The owner didn't tell the quarterback he needs to be more vocal or anything like that. He just threw out some thoughts on the next step for Ryan and the Falcons.
"I think it just comes down to I have to have a little bit better perspective of what I need to do on the field and be comfortable with the things I need to be comfortable with in terms of the plays we run and things like that," Ryan said. "Along with the coaching staff, I've got a better feel for that after two seasons of having been together. We were better in Season 2, at least in my opinion, than we were in Season 1. But we need to be more consistent in Season 3 than we were in 2 and 1. If we do that, we're going to be a much better football team."