Virtual reality: Rookie Ryan sparks Atlanta's resurgence

Matt Ryan was an Atlanta Falcon -- before he was an Atlanta Falcon.

While at Boston College, Ryan and his roommates Ryan Poles and Ryan Thompson spent numerous afternoons playing Madden NFL video games. The man nicknamed "Matty Ice" always chose the Falcons for one reason.

"He wanted Michael Vick so he could scramble in the backfield," Poles said.

There was only one problem.

"He usually didn't win," Thompson said, laughing.

These days, Ryan is both in Madden NFL and winning as Vick's replacement as franchise quarterback.
Ryan, 23, has led the Falcons to a 6-4 start. The rookie starter's play has helped reinvigorate crowds in the Georgia Dome. There, Ryan was unbeaten in four starts until a 24-20 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

Ryan's signature showing thus far might be the Falcons' 22-20 Week 6 home victory over the Chicago Bears. In the final seconds of that thriller, Ryan threw a dart to receiver Michael Jenkins for a 26-yard gain to set up the winning field goal by Jason Elam.

Afterward, Ryan reveled with first-year Falcons head coach Mike Smith and teammates but kept his cool, befitting how he earned his Matty Ice nickname for his coolness on the field.

"I think if you get caught up in those surreal moments and try to make it bigger than it is, that can overwhelm you," Ryan said of his NFL experience thus far.

"I try to make a conscious effort not to get blown away, but remember to go out and play the same game you've played your whole life. You're just playing against better people."

The ACC Player of the Year as a senior at Boston College, Ryan has helped resurrect a franchise left in shambles after the 2007 departures of Vick (who was imprisoned after a dogfighting conviction) and head coach Bobby Petrino (who resigned late in the season).

When the Falcons suffered those calamities en route to a 4-12 season, "we had a lot of question marks, and even the veterans didn't know if we'd be here," 13-year pro strong safety Lawyer Milloy said. "It was a total rebuilding process."

There seemed to be some debate about how to rebuild. Many pundits thought LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was the smartest choice for Atlanta's first-round pick at third overall.

But Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff had another idea.

"There were a lot of people talking about Dorsey, and we think very highly of him, but we knew we wanted a QB, one with accuracy underneath, the ability to move in the pocket, and who also had off-the-field strengths," Dimitroff said. "To us, that was the difference."

The Falcons made Ryan the first quarterback taken in the draft, and the richest, with a six-year, $72 million contract (including $34.75 million guaranteed). After the draft, Ryan immediately flew to Atlanta with his father, Mike, then bought a house and began acclimating.

"That was very important to Matt, to be settled early on," Mike Ryan said.

The fresh-faced Exton, Pa., native, who'd lived his entire life in the Northeast, soon found that he enjoyed Southern living. He particularly likes the fast-food chain Popeyes, which, along with pizza, are his self-professed weaknesses. His girlfriend, Sarah Marshall, a former BC basketball player, also moved to Atlanta, and she has become the resident cook for the two of them on weeknights.

Much of Ryan's life is, he said, "pretty regular." On Saturdays, after driving to McDonald's to pick up breakfast sandwiches for himself and his fellow Falcons quarterbacks to enjoy during their morning meeting, he's back home by 11:30 to spend the day watching college football. He'll return to the facility that evening for a final round of meetings, then head home again.

On most weeknights, he'll watch film of the week's opponent or TV shows such as his new weeknight favorite, Fox's "Fringe," or he's spending time with friends and teammates.

"The way I act and the way I am is the same as other 23-year-olds," Ryan said. "I like to watch dumb reality TV or hang out with my friends. It's really no different."

Beyond the obvious changes in lifestyle, the big difference in his regimen is digesting a pro playbook.
For Ryan, the 2004 recipient of Boston College's Mall Scholar-Athlete Award, learning playbook intricacies has been yet another seamless transition.

"When we got here and had spring ball for the first time, he had absorbed the playbook within a week," Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski said of Ryan. "He's very football-smart and also a really smart kid academically. He gets it."

The highlight of Ryan's week off the field is catching the newest episode of HBO's "Entourage" on Sunday nights. If the team is traveling or playing the late game, he'll watch the reruns that air Friday evenings.

"It's kind of dorky, but that's what I look forward to," Ryan said.

That lifestyle has kept him grounded, despite the spotlight that intensifies with each win. Family, too, is a major reason Ryan said he hasn't changed. He is extremely close to his parents, Mike and Bernie, as well as his three siblings: Michael (a former Division III quarterback at Widener University), Kate and John (a senior quarterback at William Penn Charter High School, where both Michael and Matt played).

Ryan's family often travels to Atlanta on game weekends, and he spends as much time with them as possible, particularly his baby niece. Mike tells the story of a recent visit when, on Monday morning, Matt awoke early to attend an optional workout. Getting his work done early enabled him to spend more time with his family members before they left that afternoon.

"Away from football, I'm happiest just spending time with my family and friends," Ryan said. "They're some of the few people who don't ask you about football all the time, and that's nice."

His affable, child-friendly nature carries over at work: Before the Falcons' home game against the New Orleans Saints, Ryan spent several minutes fielding passes not only from teammates, but also from children given field access during the pregame warm-ups.

Take a visual survey of fans outside the Georgia Dome on Sunday mornings, and No. 2 jerseys abound.

"That's always strange when you come into the stadium and see people wearing your jersey," Ryan said. "It doesn't seem right, but it's cool. Very cool."

When he jumped into the huddle the first time and got our attention, everyone was kind of shocked, like, 'The rookie's talking to us like this.' But we respected him right away.

--Veteran Falcons C Todd McClure on QB Matt Ryan's command of the huddle

It's not just the fans whom Ryan is convincing.

"When he jumped into the huddle the first time and got our attention, everyone was kind of shocked, like, 'The rookie's talking to us like this,'" veteran center Todd McClure said. "But we respected him right away."

On the first pass of his pro career, Ryan threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins. Ryan celebrates big plays in modest fashion, rushing to congratulate the receiver or ball carrier with an aerial chest bump.

"He's got what it takes to get out there and make the big plays at the big times," backup quarterback Chris Redman said. "And he's humble. He gives everyone else credit and does things the right way."

Ryan has learned lessons, in part, from Joey Harrington, who's currently the Saints' third-string quarterback. Harrington was with Atlanta last season and throughout training camp before being released.

A former Oregon star quarterback, Harrington entered the league in 2002 as the Detroit Lions' top draft pick. Like Ryan, he was thrust into the starting role with much expectation; unlike Ryan, he finished the season 3-13 with a 59.9 passer rating.

"[Harrington] gave me some advice, and his biggest thing was, don't try to do what others tell you. You have to keep true to what it is that got you here," Ryan said.

"I didn't want to push my experiences on him, but I tried to help when he asked," Harrington said. "Matt is a great guy with a good head on his shoulders. At the same time, he still has that swagger and confidence that comes from being a star in college. You need that to be a successful QB in the NFL."

'I got the nod' -- that was all he said. I got off the phone and went nuts, but all he said were those words.

--Mike Ryan on his son Matt delivering the news that he had won the Falcons' starting job

When Ryan learned in late August that he would be the Falcons' starter, he called his father.

"'I got the nod' -- that was all he said," Mike recalls.

"I got off the phone and went nuts, but all he said were those words."

Ryan has been consistently productive, totaling 2,159 yards (11th-best among NFL QBs) and an 87.8 passer rating (13th-best) through Week 11.

His chemistry with receivers Jenkins and Roddy White as well as with running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood has resulted in 11 touchdown passes. In 283 pass attempts, Ryan has thrown just six interceptions.

"Regardless of age, when you're the QB, you have to be a leader because everyone looks to you," backup quarterback D.J. Shockley said. "He understands that already and has taken it upon himself to be that guy."

At 6 feet, 4 inches and 220 pounds, Ryan looks as if he was born to play quarterback. But his youth coaches didn't always agree.

"In Pop Warner football, Matt played tight end, safety, you name it, but not much QB," Mike said. "He was not fast, but he was smart. He understood what needed to be done and he could throw very accurately and very well."

By the halfway point of his high school freshman season, Ryan's coach, Brian McCloskey, had given him free rein to call audibles at the line of scrimmage. Though he wasn't an immediate starter at BC, Mike said that Ryan already was being mentioned as a future star.

"In his freshman year, he was almost in the discussion right away as the future of BC football. At that point, he hadn't played a down and wouldn't for another year and a half. … They had Brian St. Pierre and a good recruit from Maine, and here's Matt, 6-5, maybe 185 pounds soaking wet, in the mix. I was so surprised at that."

Although he's once again enduring another "first year," Ryan said he already feels comfortable reading defenses and changing a call as the play clock winds down. His smart, mature play belies his first-year status, particularly when he scrambles or gets off a quick pass.

"Matt [Ryan] makes their offensive line even better than they are," Saints rookie defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said after New Orleans' 34-20 loss to Atlanta. Ryan completed 16 of 23 passes for 248 yards and two scores. He didn't throw an interception and avoided being sacked.

Given that many veteran quarterbacks have struggled mightily this season, Ryan's consistently smooth showings are even more impressive.

Behind that cool demeanor, however, there is one major pet peeve.

"When guys jump offsides. That's the one thing that just drives him crazy," Jagodzinski said of Ryan.

"I feel sorry for any lineman that jumps offsides," Thompson added.

Fortunately, the Falcons are among the least penalized teams this season.

"Oftentimes, I'll look at my wife, and we're like, 'Can you believe this?'" Mike Ryan said.

The Ryans aren't the only ones. Now, behind Ryan, Turner, White, Elam, and defensive standouts such as Milloy and John Abraham, the Falcons are bidding for the NFC South title. The third-place Falcons are two games behind the division-leading Carolina Panthers, who visit the Georgia Dome for a crucial game Sunday.

"This town wants someone to rally behind, and he's going to be the guy if he keeps playing like he's been playing," McClure said.

Said Milloy: "As each week goes by, you realize that this guy is for real."

Although Ryan might be a favorite to be named rookie of the year, there are moments when he can remain incognito, even in Atlanta.

Wide receiver Brian Finneran tells the story of a preseason auto accident involving himself, Ryan (who was driving) and Shockley.

"We were sitting at a light, it was raining and wet out, and this knucklehead came around the corner too fast and skidded into us. Matt took it like he would anything else, just called the cops and filed a report," Finneran recalled.

"But the guy who hit us didn't realize who we were. He kept asking, 'Are you guys going to the gym?' since we're all fairly big and in our workout gear. We laughed and said, 'Yeah, we're going to the gym,' until we finally told him who we were."

One place you won't find Ryan is the Web-networking phenomenon Facebook -- at least, not anymore.

"Our junior year, when he was starting to be known as a good player, he was on Facebook," Poles said. "But 90 percent of his friends' list was male. There were hardly any girls. We used to rip him apart for that -- here's one of the top QBs in college, and almost all his friends were guys. That's why he's no longer on there."

When the offseason rolls around, Ryan said he'll be ready to catch up on sleep. He'll also devote some days to golf (he often plays in a foursome with his dad and two brothers), spend time at the beach with his family and watch his other favorite sport, basketball.

"In college, I don't know if I should say this, but we used to skip class to watch some of the March Madness games," Ryan said. "Now I'll be able to watch all of them. I'm so excited about that, and catching some [Atlanta] Hawks games as well."

Until then, he's focused on doing something that would have seemed virtually impossible even in a video game world -- making the Falcons unlikely playoff contenders.

"I want to be around here a long time, with this team, go to the playoffs and hopefully win a championship," Ryan said.

Even as the acclaim and recognition mounts for Ryan, there's little chance that fame will go to his head.

"Nothing is taken for granted, and there's no sense of entitlement," Mike Ryan said of his son. "He understands that what has happened is a gift, and I'm proud of that."

Anna K. Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and contributes to ESPN.com.