Falcons blending 'old' with the 'new'

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's funny how things work in life and the NFL.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan seldom turns down a Philly cheesesteak or a slice of pizza. Those are foods Ryan's tight end Tony Gonzalez trashes in his newly released book, "The All-Pro Diet."

Ryan, 24, feels like a veteran going into his second NFL season. Gonzalez, 33, feels like a rookie going into his 13th.

Ryan, the 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie Of The Year, has the makings of a future Hall of Famer. Gonzalez, acquired in the offseason from the Kansas City Chiefs, is a future Hall of Famer.

So the quarterback from Philadelphia and the tight end from California have merged their paths in Atlanta for one common destination: the Super Bowl.

"It's the only goal that matters," said Ryan.

"Now that I've been around this organization, this team and this quarterback, I think it can happen," said Gonzalez.

Last season, Ryan was almost too good to be true for a Falcons franchise that was still reeling from the ugly ending to the Michael Vick era. "Matty Ice," as his nickname suggested, led the team to a wild-card berth in the playoffs with an 11-5 record. His selection proved to be a genius stroke by general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- not everyone agreed about Ryan's prospects to become a franchise quarterback.

The word around the Falcons' camp is simply that if people thought Ryan was good his rookie year, wait until you see him this season. He certainly expects improvement.

"I will say that it's night and day heading into this season, understanding what we do offensively," said Ryan.

"People don't realize when you're a rookie, it's really not reading defenses that throws you off as a rookie. It's getting the play in your ear, trying to call that play and get everything out, and then execute. It's tough and takes some time to learn and I'm lot more comfortable."

Gonzalez is a legend as the NFL's all-time receiving leader for tight ends; he agrees that early comparisons to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are not premature when speaking about Ryan.

"I think so, too," said Gonzalez. "And I heard so much about him last year and he definitely lives up to the hype. When I got here, you could see the charisma.

"He's definitely a leader. Out in the field, he knows what everybody's doing. And I really think what separates him from everybody else -- yeah, you gotta have talent and he's got talent. He's got a great arm, he's 6-foot-4, he's smart, but the thing about him from other players at that position is his willingness to really work to be the best.

"One thing me and Peyton Manning talk about out at the Pro Bowls is what separates players is not really the talent, it's who is willing to pay the price and work hard, and Matt is one of those guys."

For Ryan, Christmas came early when the Falcons acquired the 10-time Pro Bowl tight end from the Chiefs in exchange for a second-round pick. Ryan sees why greatness is attached to Gonzalez's résumé

"He's so talented, such a playmaker and one of the things I've been impressed with Tony is how detail-oriented he is," Ryan said, "from his diet, from the everyday routine of getting himself ready to go to practice, to paying attention to details out at practice."

There's a reason Gonzalez is more attentive this year: He's no longer a Chief after 12 seasons. Everything is foreign to him.

"I'll admit I'm still somewhat uncomfortable," said Gonzalez.

"I'm learning a new offense, I'm making new friends, learning a new freeway system. All the things going into switching teams, I'm going through it right now and it's kind of tough, like being a rookie all over again."

Is that a good or bad thing?

"I think it's going to help make me a better player," said Gonzalez.

"You get in a whole new system, I'm blocking more at the point of attack, I have different route-running schemes and I'm working with a new quarterback. I think that helps you grow. When you're uncomfortable like that, or taken out of your element, you either adapt to it or you don't. When you see the talent on this team, you are motivated to adapt."

Here's more of what I learned and observed at Falcons training camp, the 18th stop on my training camp bus tour:

  • It's well-documented that in their 43-year-old franchise history, the Falcons never have had back-to-back winning seasons. Their biggest obstacle this season is a swap in divisional schedule: The NFC South draws the NFC East and AFC East in 2009 after playing the NFC West and AFC West in 2008.

  • Dimitroff has his offense in great shape, even with the loss of wide receiver Harry Douglas to an ACL injury, but he's rebuilding the defense with youth. There have been some encouraging signs from this year's rookie class, especially cornerback Chris Owens, a third-round pick from San Jose State whose stature (5 feet, 9 inches, 181 pounds) belies his strength, aggressiveness and surprising ball skills.

  • The tricky part for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is that his creative schemes might have to be tamped down to make sure the younger players still can play with speed and athleticism. Bottom line: The defense will need a lot of help from the offense, which might be the most prolific in franchise history.

  • The trick for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is to score enough points to make the game more one-dimensional for the defense and/or to ensure the defense is not overexposed. Controlling the clock with running back Michael Turner will help.

    "We can do it all because we have so many weapons, guys like Ryan and Turner, [wide receiver] Roddy White, Jerious Norwood coming out of backfield, [wide receivers] Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran," Gonzalez said.

  • Falcons players remain effusive in their praise of second-year coach Mike Smith, a hire many second-guessed last year.

    "Smitty is a fiery guy," said Ryan, smiling. "Nobody knew that before, but I think everybody knows it now after seeing him on sidelines last year. He's very passionate about this football team heading in the right direction.

    "He's a lot of fun to play for. Off field, he's easygoing, easy to talk to about a number of different things which helped me out a bunch in my rookie season. He's a good person and a lot of fun to play for and the guys respect him."

    Gonzalez also said of Smith: "I'm impressed. And just look at the staff he's hired on both sides of the ball. That says a lot about him."

    Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.