FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan is eager to regain his MVP form with the Atlanta Falcons.
It sure seems possible with Julio Jones in camp, first-round pick Calvin Ridley ready to make an impact and — perhaps most important — a full season in the books with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
While Ryan put up his seventh straight year with more than 4,000 yards through the air, he didn’t come close to matching the best season of his career under previous coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
In 2017, Ryan’s yardage dipped significantly (4,944 to 4,095). So did his TDs (38 to 20) and quarterback rating (117.1 to 91.4). His interceptions went up (7 to 12).
Most tellingly, the Falcons went from leading the league in scoring (33.75 points per game) to a middle-of-the-pack 15th position (22.06). Coming off an MVP season, Ryan wasn’t even in the conversation for the league’s top player.
The slide in production had some people wondering if head coach Dan Quinn would give Sarkisian another chance .
But Quinn was mindful that Shanahan’s first season in Atlanta also was a bit of a struggle. He found his groove in 2016, overseeing a dynamic offense that helped carry the Falcons all the way to the Super Bowl and earn Shanahan his first head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence,” Ryan said of Year 2 with Sarkisian. “Obviously, I think Sark is a lot more comfortable with the personnel, knowing what guys to use in certain situations. I think that just comes with experience. We all kind of have a feel for his flavor as well. I think he did a great job for us last year and will continue to do a great job this year.”
Quinn is certainly expecting a more comfortable relationship between Ryan and Sarkisian. For good measure, the Falcons also hired Greg Knapp, a former Atlanta offensive coordinator, to serve as quarterbacks coach.
“Like most relationships, there’s probably some situations that you need to go through together,” Quinn said. “OK, how did that person respond? How did he get through it? Generally as it goes, the communication improves.”
For a while, it looked as though Ryan might have to make do without one of the league’s top receivers .
Unhappy with his contract, Jones skipped offseason workouts in Atlanta as well as a mandatory minicamp. But on the eve of training camp, he agreed to report after the Falcons figured out a way to give him a bit more money this season, along with a promise to negotiate a new deal in 2019.
No one was more pleased than Ryan to have No. 11 on the receiving end of his throws.
“He’s the best teammate you could ask for,” Ryan said. “He’s just a great worker and such a good teacher for the young guys, too.”
Jones is already spreading his knowledge to Ridley, who is expected to take over the third receiver role filled so ably the past two years by Taylor Gabriel.
Ryan is impressed by what he’s seen so far from the rookie.
“He’s a talented player who can do a lot of different things,” Ryan said. “Certainly through the offseason and through the first couple of days of camp, he showcased his talent level. I kind of see him having a really good year for us and really fitting in with the receiving corps that we have.”
Shown the money
Ryan certainly has no complaints about his contract. He expects to remain with the Falcons for the rest of his career after signing a new five-year, $150 million deal, the most lucrative in NFL history and the first with $100 million in guaranteed earnings.
To justify all that money, Ryan is focused on being more efficient in the red zone. Far too many times last season, the Falcons settled for field goals instead of touchdowns after driving inside the 20-yard line.
In the early days of training camp, the team already looks much crisper in those situations.
“A point of emphasis for us is improving in the red area, so we can have more touchdowns than we did last year,” Ryan said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before the season, but it’s a good start.”
With Jones, Ridley and Mohammad Sanu catching passes, an offensive line bolstered by the signing of free-agent guard Brandon Fusco, and a dynamic backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Ryan certainly has plenty of options at his disposal.
Enough to play like an MVP.
“We’ve got a really, really scary offense,” Freeman said.