ATLANTA — Every NFL player’s dream is to win a Super Bowl, but Matt Ryan admitted achieving such a goal wasn’t at the forefront of his thoughts when he first entered the league.
Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 draft, was “a little naive” back then regarding the chances of winning a title.
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His mindset quickly changed.
“I think after my rookie year was the first time I thought about it,” Ryan said. “We got to the playoffs, and we lost to the Cardinals. Then the Cardinals went on to play the Steelers in the Super Bowl. That was the first time I was like, ‘Man, we played them tough. I can do this. We can do this.’
“You have the belief from that point. Prior to that, you’re not even thinking that way. Then after that playoff game, I really felt like, ‘All right, we’re right in the mix. We can do this.'”
Eleven years later, Ryan has yet to hoist the Lombardi trophy. That elusive title fuels him daily. He was named the league MVP in 2016. He has won an NFC Championship. He signed a deal worth $30 million per year and $100 million guaranteed in 2018. In the grand scheme, none of those accomplishments compare to owning a Super Bowl title.
Ryan’s feelings haven’t changed since his rookie season: He firmly believes he can do this.
“It’s the No. 1 goal for me,” Ryan said of winning a Super Bowl. “It’s the ultimate and what motivates me to get out of bed every morning and to try and put in the work as hard as I can, to bring a championship to this city and to our organization. That’s what it’s all about.”
Coming close is never good enough
Ryan doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on what happened in 2016 when the Falcons made a run to Super Bowl LI only to blow a 28-3 third-quarter lead in a 34-28 overtime loss to the New England Patriots. That same year, following a 44-21 triumph over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, Ryan got a call from a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback.
“The first guy was Peyton [Manning],” Ryan said. “He called me that night and said, ‘Hey, man, any help you need, if you need anything, here’s how to schedule your week.’ He’s been great to me.”
Ryan also has communicated with Tom Brady, now a six-time Super Bowl champ, over the years.
“I spoke with Tom and texted with Tom, regularly,” Ryan said. “He didn’t give much of a formula — just supportive.”
Ryan would love to be the one offering advice to others on what it takes to win a Super Bowl. Most believed the Falcons were legit Super Bowl contenders leading into the 2018 season. However, the team placed six starters on injured reserve, losing five of them for the season. The Falcons couldn’t fully recover from a 1-4 start, a five-game losing streak in November and December, or the slew of injuries, leading to a 7-9 finish.
“It was really disappointing,” Ryan said. “The No. 1 thing was we had opportunities to finish games multiple times throughout the year, and we just fell short with too many opportunities. So that’s got to be the No. 1 point of emphasis, in my mind, moving forward, is finding ways to finish teams out. It could be at different times throughout the games, but we’ve got to find ways to finish.”
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Looking ahead to 2019
The process of rebuilding for next season already is in full swing. Coach Dan Quinn made drastic changes with the staff, firing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. While Quinn will take over the defensive playcalling, he hired Dirk Koetter, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach and one-time Falcons coordinator, to run the offense once again.
“Dirk, he’s an excellent playcaller,” Ryan said. “He connects with the guys really well. I think he kind of adjusts to where he’s at. What they did in Tampa was different from what he did in Atlanta [the first time], which is different from how they played in Jacksonville. He looks at what you have, and he tries to take what you have and make what you have the best it can be.”
Quinn also has begun to reshape the roster, cutting ties with veteran kicker and fan favorite Matt Bryant, starting cornerback Robert Alford and defensive end Brooks Reed. Those moves will clear almost $15.5 million in salary-cap space for 2019, and the Falcons have prioritized signing nose tackle Grady Jarrett to a lucrative contract and reworking wide receiver Julio Jones‘ deal.
The most significant personnel change, however, could be the return of two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman from a season-ending groin surgery.
“It’s huge,” Ryan said of getting Freeman back. “He’s a great player. Anytime you add a great player back into the mix with a bunch of other guys that are great players, it’s a good thing. And he’s a dynamic player. He can make things happen in the passing game and in the running game. His ability to cut back, his ability to make people miss, his ability to run with power, all that stuff is good.”
Ryan wants to do his part in, perhaps, leading the Falcons back to Super Bowl contention. He posted MVP-like numbers this past season with 4,924 passing yards — the second-highest total of his career behind the 4,944 during the Super Bowl season — a 69.4 percent completion percentage, and 35 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. Despite those gaudy numbers, Ryan believed he fell short in at least one area, an area he plans to address this offseason.
“I think it’s probably trying to find ways to utilize all of our guys the best way we can,” Ryan said. “Like I think Hoop [tight end Austin Hooper] did a great job [last] offseason of coming to work, having a clear plan of what he wanted to improve on and how we’re going to use him. And I think we can expand his role. But it’s doing that same thing with Calvin [Ridley], doing that with Mohamed [Sanu]. Spending individual time with those guys, one-on-one, in that way, I think, is beneficial.
“To me, it makes me a better player when I understand how those guys operate, what they’re hearing when I’m talking to them, and what they’re saying back to me. I think improving those relationships is, to me, the most important thing.”
Ryan plans to spend more time in California with Hooper individually and hopes to do the same with the others mentioned. He already has a good feel for working with his top receiver, Jones, Ryan’s teammate since 2011.
While Ryan does his part, the front office has to do its job in securing more talent on the offensive line to protect Ryan and open holes in the running game. The line also has to be addressed on defense to be stouter against the run and better at rushing the passer.
Matt has ‘it in his future’
Team owner Arthur Blank told ESPN he believes the Falcons are in “good, competitive shape” to return to the Super Bowl. And at least two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks think Ryan has what it takes to finally win it all.
“I think, certainly, Matt has it,” said Joe Theismann, who won Super Bowl XVII with the Washington Redskins. “He’s been there, and he’s been close. The one that got away, you never know if you’re going to get another chance. It’s a little bit like Dan Marino.
“But Matt, with the people around him, I think their football team offensively is as good as there is in football. The question is, how well are they going to play defensively? They’re in a tough division. But I think Matt certainly has it in his future.”
Kurt Warner, who won Super Bowl XXXIV with the Rams, pointed to one quality Ryan possesses that could help put the Falcons over the top.
“I think the things I love about Matt is, I believe to be a great quarterback in this league you have to have the ability to make those second-level throws — what I call ‘chunk throws’ — and to be able to make those consistently, and I think Matt does it as well as anyone in the NFL,” Warner said.
“We’ve seen Matt play at an MVP level. We’ve seen him play in the Super Bowl. But that, to me, is what helps separate him. Not everybody has that ability. Most guys can make the 5-to-10-yard throws. Most guys can make the deep throws. Can you make those medium-range, chunk throws on a consistent basis, and Matt does it as well as anybody.”