Why Matt Ryan's singular focus led him to the Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- The summertime family football games on the Jersey Shore were as competitive as they were physical.

And, if we're being honest, Matt Ryan had no business participating.

He was the youngest of the cousins, brothers and uncles recklessly throwing their bodies around for bragging rights. In the grand scheme, that never got them very far, unless you include the distance to the local emergency room.

But all these years later, even after beginning his 15th NFL season -- his first with the Indianapolis Colts -- Ryan knows he shouldn't have been out there, underage and undersized as he was, and in a family that boasts numerous high-level athletes.

"I had to make sure I could keep up, shut up, not cry, not whine, not do any of those things, so that they would include me," Ryan said. "And you had to be good enough to where they were like, 'Yeah, he's cool.'

"It was not me competing against the other 10-year olds. For whatever reason, I just always felt like I could keep up and probably had this irrational sense of self-confidence and self-belief."

It's now more than a quarter-century later. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.

Ryan is no longer the youngest kid on the field. In fact, at 37, Ryan was the oldest player on the field Sunday when the Colts and Houston Texans played to a 20-20 season-opening tie. But that irrational sense of self-confidence still defines him.

The difference now? It has him believing he can compete at the highest level of his sport against men whose parents aren't much older than him.

Actually, there's another important distinction: Ryan no longer is playing in pursuit of mere respectability. He earned that long ago with an NFL Most Valuable Player Award and through his accumulation of just over 60,000 passing yards. Now, the potential prize is much bigger, one that for so long has been frustratingly elusive, but one Ryan still chases with abandon: A Super Bowl victory. The next step will be Sunday in Jacksonville, where the Colts were eliminated from playoff contention last season with a Week 18 upset loss that helped pave the way for a quarterback change.

"At this stage of my career," Ryan said, "that's what I'm in it for."

AS RYAN SITS down for an interview, it's nearly dinnertime. It is still more than a week and a half before the Colts' season opener, but heading home early is not an option. Ryan sets his leather briefcase down before he begins the chat. This man is here for business.

It's not difficult to understand why he's in Indianapolis after 14 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. When the notion of a trade finally became real, Ryan sought to land someplace that would enable him to compete for a championship. After his own exhaustive research -- including culling intel from former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning -- there was just a singular answer in Ryan's estimation: the Colts.

Ryan is one of several NFL megastars to change teams during the offseason who now hope to change their new team's fortunes. Some of the others -- Russell Wilson, Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams among them -- have dominated the headlines while Ryan has not. But if this experiment that has brought together Ryan and the Colts achieves its objective, the headlines will come when it matters most.

That objective?

"He wants to put a ring on his finger," said Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, Ryan's former Atlanta teammate. "And he's on a team that he thinks can take him there."

This season is all about the Super Bowl for Ryan even while the Super Bowl is something of a sore subject for him. Ryan's Falcons endured arguably the most infamous loss in the game's history. The phrase "28-3" has become a punchline, a reference to the seemingly insurmountable lead the Falcons enjoyed over the New England Patriots in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI. Atlanta ultimately lost the game after a historic Tom Brady-led comeback.

Ryan seems, um, thrilled when the subject comes up.

"It sucks," he said. "There's no getting around it."

The feeling is, perhaps, further complicated because Ryan played well in the game, completing 17 of 23 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating, 144.1, is the fourth-highest in Super Bowl history.

Really, what more could he have done? Ever the professional, Ryan confronts the matter head on.

"There's a burden that comes with leadership," he said. "And it's taking ownership of success and failure. That's something that can weigh on you, at times. It can be a heavy thing. But I've always embraced that. I understand the nature of how quarterbacks are judged."

Good thing, because if Ryan was looking for a team that might allow him to avoid expectations, he should've looked elsewhere. The Colts, who return seven 2021 Pro Bowlers, have high aspirations and aren't afraid to say it. Sunday's uneven performance might have been concerning, but it's a message Ryan heard from Manning months ago, and one that's been reinforced since.

"We're set up for excellence," owner Jim Irsay said last month. "Now, we just have to go do it. And Matt Ryan has that same feeling in his heart.

"He's here to get his Lombardi."

RYAN HAS BEEN friends with Brady and Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford for years. Both changed teams in recent seasons after lengthy stints in New England and Detroit, respectively. Those moves resulted in Super Bowl wins for each in Year 1.

Ryan took note, but the idea of leaving Atlanta was never at the front of his mind -- not until the Falcons made the first move.

Atlanta dived head-first into the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes earlier this year, pursuing the quarterback who was shopping himself to teams interested in executing a trade with his former team, the Texans. Ryan never has publicly expressed anything more than slight irritation about this.

It cannot be overlooked that the Falcons did this while Watson was, at the time, facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions. He was eventually traded to the Cleveland Browns.

"I'm not naïve," Ryan said. "I know how this business works."

That's putting it mildly.

"Nobody wants to go through that and feel disrespected," said retired Atlanta center Todd McClure, a longtime friend of Ryan's. "I love my Falcons, but the way that whole deal went down was a slap in the face."

Ryan wrestled with his emotions. He had always seen himself retiring as a Falcon and maintained a devotion to his teammates and the franchise -- even in spite of the torn-down roster and porous pass protection. But it was deeper than that. Ryan had a commitment to an entire region. Atlanta was the only NFL city he'd known.

"He is the best quarterback in that franchise's history," Gonzalez said. "Obviously the community had a big connection to Michael Vick as well. But Ryan, simply, he's the best."

And that connection grew deeper in recent years when the George Floyd protests of 2020 prompted Ryan and his wife, Sarah, to create ATL: Advance the Lives, a charitable organization whose mission statement is to "work to combat the systemic barriers that Black youth face." That followed a personal $500,000 donation to area grassroots organizations and comes after many years of other involvement in the community.

Falcons fans were drawn to Ryan's humility as much as his proclivity to throw touchdown passes.

"When he walks in a room, he introduces himself," said Taylor Stanley, program director at ATL. "He says, 'Hi, I'm Matt.' Yeah, we know. You've been the franchise quarterback for 14 years!"

Given the relationship with Atlanta, accepting that the Falcons were making plans that did not include him was jarring. But Ryan did what needed to be done.

"There comes a time where [change] might be best," he said.

With that, Ryan asked for a trade. The Falcons dealt him to Indianapolis for a third-round draft pick -- an anticlimactic ending to a 14-year relationship.

"His dedication to Atlanta has not changed," Stanley said. "That's something they let me know throughout the whole ordeal. We will continue to focus on Atlanta. But going to Indy, it's an opportunity for him to flourish."

COLTS HEAD COACH Frank Reich spent the 12 days between the Colts' trade of 2021 starting quarterback Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders on March 9 and their deal to land Ryan in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

After the embarrassing loss to the Jaguars, Irsay summoned Reich and general manager Chris Ballard for a meeting during which Irsay was "demanding," according to Reich, and holding people accountable. Now, here was Reich, under pressure to win but without a starting quarterback even while alternatives like Wilson were off the board. Was the Wentz decision about to backfire?

Then, a potential Ryan trade came onto the Colts' radar and Reich perked up. He'd been essentially cycling through quarterbacks for years, with the Colts deploying a different starter in each of the previous four seasons. But Ryan's thoroughness would require a sophisticated pitch. Reich had to turn on the charm.

He did just that, joined by Ballard and the Colts' offensive assistants, during a Zoom call with Ryan.

"It's like when you go on a first date," Reich said. "You wear your best outfit."

In this case, that meant pulling together a reel of about 30 plays that embodied what the Colts were seeking to do on offense. Reich shared his screen and let the conversation flow.

"I showed some of our core runs with Nyheim [Hines] and [Jonathan Taylor]," Reich said. "And [Ryan] was like 'Oh, I get to play quarterback in an offense that runs the ball this well?' And then I said, 'Now, watch what we do with play-action off of this, and the defense's reaction.' And naturally, I'm showing him all the best plays. I'm not showing him the plays where we messed up.

"We were on for two hours, but it literally felt like we were on the phone for 15 minutes. And I think for all of us who were on the call, we knew it was something special. We all keep talking about it, even now."

"He wants to put a ring on his finger, and he's on a team that he thinks can take him there."
Tony Gonzalez

After one date, the Colts had found their match.

The connection has only grown since. Ryan has ably taken his place alongside the Colts' young players, who have gravitated to him. Even in season No. 15, Ryan exudes enthusiasm and intensity.

"I remember on rookie report day, he was just so fired up," receiver Parris Campbell said. "The vets weren't even here yet. But he was so juiced up. I was in the training room three hours before practice, and he was just so ready. That's not a fluke. That's him every single day."

But be aware: That passion can take different forms.

"He'll blow up. He'll let you know if you're not doing things right," said Gonzalez, now an NFL analyst for Prime Video. "There were a couple times where I remember he told everybody in the huddle to shut the f--- up. He told me that, and I was the old guy. I was like, 'Hey, hold on, now!' But I loved it."

Ryan isn't young anymore. He's more than 16 years older than the youngest Colt, rookie safety Nick Cross. But he's still got that ridiculous ability to believe he belongs, the one he first exhibited at 10 years old.

And it's that same boyhood confidence that has convinced Ryan the Colts can win it all.