Matt Ryan isn't going to play forever. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback, entering his 14th season with the franchise, understands he's closer to the end of his career than the start of it. He has been around the NFL long enough, seen enough players come and go, to get that.
And Ryan didn't know last month, when the Falcons were sitting at No. 4 in the 2021 NFL draft, whether they would select his future replacement. Atlanta didn't, instead selecting tight end Kyle Pitts, but Ryan said that didn't change how he thought about his spot on the team or his future with Atlanta.
"In one respect you understand that if you play well for long enough, these are the conversations that are going to come up," Ryan said Tuesday. "I understand that I'm not going to play forever, but I also have the mindset that I'm still playing really well and have a lot of good football in front of me."
"The most important thing for me is that it comes from the belief in the building, the people who are actually making decisions. The people who are with you day-to-day. That's where I try to keep it."
Ryan, who turned 36 on Monday and celebrated by taking his family out for an early dinner of chicken fingers, said it has been harder to block out conversations about his future as he has gotten older. Some of that has to do with those conversations potentially being more frequent and also more accessible on social media.
But he believes he still is playing well coming off a season in which he completed 65% of his passes for 4,581 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That stat line is in line with how Ryan has been the majority of his time in Atlanta. He has thrown for over 4,000 yards and 20 or more touchdowns in each of the past 10 seasons. He has completed 65% or more of his throws every year since 2012.
And, as his career has progressed, he has gained a new perspective on his successes and accomplishments.
"You realize how hard it is at this age," Ryan said. "You appreciate the success probably more now. I've never really been motivated -- you want to win, but I really hated losing more than I loved winning. It would eat at you more, and I think that only intensifies the older you get because you realize your opportunities are limited."
Ryan doesn't believe his window is limited, though, pointing to Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady and his continued strong play. But he understands where he is in the timeline of his career and that, once again, he has to prove himself with a new coaching staff -- this time led by former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.
Ryan, who is on his third head coach, said every time a new regime comes in, he knows there's a level of question. Will they like him still? What will they think of what he has done in the past, and what he can do in the future? Atlanta did restructure his contract in March, which could have offered a clue as to the team's plans for Ryan, but it didn't change his mindset.
"You're constantly trying to prove that you're the right person for this spot," Ryan said. "I was told at a young age, from some veteran players in that locker room, you don't own that locker. You rent it. So I try to pay my rent on time all the time and do the best that I can do to stay in that spot."
Through the past decade, one of the players who helped Ryan the most is receiver Julio Jones. Jones has been targeted more, has caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns from Ryan, than any other Falcons player.
And Jones' future with Atlanta is in question. General manager Terry Fontenot said last month that the team has taken calls on possibly trading the star receiver because of the Falcons' salary-cap situation. While Ryan said he understands the business part of it, and he has no involvement in those decisions, he made clear Jones' influence on Ryan's own career. And he doesn't know what a post-Jones offense would look like.
"He's probably impacted my career more significantly than any other player," Ryan said. "And I've been really fortunate to be around him for as long as I have."