Monday, November 24, 2008

See ya, Vick.

Ryan playing like no rookie before him
By Mark Bradley | Sunday, November 23, 2008, 09:48 PM

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It was a moment in a game that was slipping away, and if this game slips away then maybe this improbably sunny season does, too. Third-and-10 at the Atlanta 45-yard line, Carolina having closed within 17-13, and here the Falcons looked at their rookie quarterback and said, “Make a play.”

The play as designed fizzled on the launch site. The pocket collapsed and the rookie was forced to scramble to his left, away from his first read, and now he had a choice: He could keep running and come up short of the vital first down, or …

Running left, he threw to his right. Michael Jenkins caught the ball and skittered for 19 precious yards, and five snaps later the Falcons had an 11-point lead. And right about here the realization struck:

In Matt Ryan, we are watching the greatest rookie quarterback ever.

Tom Brady threw three passes his rookie season; Brett Favre threw four. Bart Starr and Joe Montana each started one game as rookies. Troy Aikman had to be benched midway through, having gone 0-11 as a starter. Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions his first season. John Elway completed 47.5 percent of his rookie passes, Terry Bradshaw 38.1 percent.

Joe Namath was 3-5-1 as a lavishly salaried — he was making $400,000 — rookie. Fran Tarkenton was 2-8 as a first-year starter; Johnny Unitas was 4-3, Bob Griese 3-7. Ben Roethlisberger was 13-0 as a rookie quarterback on a loaded Pittsburgh team but didn’t start until Week 3. Sammy Baugh made All-Pro as a rookie but threw six more interceptions than touchdown passes. Bob Waterfield was league MVP as a rookie but started only four games. (Doubtless he got bonus points for being married to Jane Russell.)

Dan Marino is considered the gold standard of rookie quarterbacks, but his first start only came in Week 6, and he joined a team that had reached the Super Bowl the previous season. And now we consider Matt Ryan, who has started from Day 1 for a dilapidated team the Sporting News pegged to finish 1-15, who stands now as the chief reason the refurbished Falcons are 7-4.

He completed 17-of-27 passes for 259 yards against Carolina Sunday. He completed nine of his first 11 passes in staking the Falcons to a 17-0 lead. Said Roddy White, who ran under a 30-yard rainbow off a Ryan pump-and-go on the second snap Sunday: “Sometimes you luck up and get the guy. We got the guy.”

Eleven games in, the Falcons have stopped waiting for Ryan to have a Rookie Moment. “He hasn’t given me a reason to [expect one],” said Mike Mularkey, the offensive coordinator. And then, asked if Ryan has already absorbed the entire playbook and thereby given the Falcons license to call anything at any time, Mularkey said, “Yes.”

We saw it again Sunday, same as we’ve seen it since August. We saw it in the fourth quarter, the Panthers having drawn within a field goal again, the Falcons facing third-and-11 at their 25 with eight minutes left. We saw Ryan drop back and step forward into a big rush and loft the ball down the right side for Douglas to snatch, and the 69-yard gain positioned the Falcons to bang home the clincher.

“I threw it on time, actually a little early,” Ryan said. “He had man coverage, and I was hoping he’d roll his hips back toward me. But he was able to put his foot in the ground and stop [and make the catch]. It was a great play by Harry Douglas, not me.”

That’s typical Ryan. Everybody else makes the plays. He just carries out his assignments. But we on the periphery, having watched all along, know better. We know this rookie quarterback has made a difference in a way no other rookie quarterback — not Marino, not Roethlisberger, not anybody — ever has.

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