Thomas Dimitroff’s search for a savior began in a familiar place. Before he was hired as the Falcons general manager in 2008, he spent five years as the Patriots director of college scouting, and it didn’t take long for his new job to pull him back to New England. Boston College sits just 25 miles north of Dimitroff’s old office at Gillette Stadium, and the short jaunt ensured he spent plenty of time in Chestnut Hill. The Eagles’ main attraction in 2007 was senior Matt Ryan, who had blossomed into a Heisman Trophy candidate and the most pro-ready passer in college football. Among teams in need of a franchise quarterback, Ryan was seen as a beacon of hope.
When Dimitroff was hired in Atlanta, the team was just waking from a season-long nightmare. In the aftermath of Michael Vick’s arrest for his role in a dogfighting ring, the Falcons had gone 4–12 with the rotating trio of Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, and Byron Leftwich under center. One year in the quarterback wilderness was enough. That March, with draft preparation in full swing, Dimitroff — armed with the no. 3 overall pick — joined Falcons owner Arthur Blank and a contingent of team personnel on a private jet bound for Boston.
The group convened with Ryan at a meeting room in Boston College’s practice facility — home-field advantage for a 22-year-old about to face the gauntlet. As is standard fare in any predraft grilling, Ryan was summoned to the front of the room to dissect his college offense. Fielding a barrage of questions, he tore through the intricacies of his scheme. “He was ripping it off like he should,” Dimitroff says. “Some beautiful-football-mind shit.”
What happened next has stuck with Dimitroff, the defining flourish of his first brush with someone who’s gone on to define his career. After acing his test, Ryan capped the marker he was holding, leaned back, and casually tossed it in the air. “Like, ‘K, is there anything else?’” Dimitroff says. “It wasn’t chest-thumping. It was just more what you’d expect from a guy who was going to come into the league and be a legit no. 1 quarterback.”
Dimitroff’s years in New England had recalibrated his view of the position. In his younger days he had hunted for big-armed, fleet-footed gunslingers; to him, the ideal signal-caller moved and threw like Brett Favre. As he spent time around Tom Brady, though, Dimitroff’s view of quarterback greatness gained nuance. Dependability mattered above all else. Brady was built to handle all that comes with being a franchise bedrock. Dimitroff saw the same qualities in Ryan. “We knew it started with a quarterback,” Dimitroff says, “and we knew it started with a quarterback in our mind that was not only going to perform, but also be a very important part of the culture and a part of winning the entire fan base over.”
In Vick’s wake, Dimitroff and Blank wanted to find a nail on which they could hang the Falcons’ future. Nine years later, Ryan has proven to be just that. His passing yardage over the past five seasons has barely wavered, and his completion rate during that stretch has hovered between 66 and 69 percent. Last Sunday, in a 42–14 rout of the Rams, Ryan extended his streak of 200-plus-yard passing games to a league-record 52. Even his features — a face that could go weeks without a shave and a haircut that never changes — make him seem as if he was etched in stone. “Matt Ryan is, in my mind, the epitome of consistency,” Dimitroff says. “In how he approaches things, how he leads, his intelligence, his desire to get better.”
For much of his time in Atlanta, Ryan has been a model of reliability — until now, that is. At age 31, Ryan has become a bona fide MVP candidate while having the season of his career. Through 14 weeks, the Falcons are no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and lead the league in scoring at 32.9 points per game. At this pace, they would finish with the 10th-best scoring average since the merger. Ryan’s 9.2 yards per attempt has him on track to register the seventh-highest mark in a single season. After nearly a decade in the football consciousness, Ryan has transformed from dependable to devastating, forcing onlookers to reconsider how — and when — a quarterback can shake free from the constraints of perception.
When the Falcons picked Ryan in 2008, their wounds were still fresh. Not five months had passed since the late-December stretch that reduced the franchise to rubble. One day after Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison, head coach Bobby Petrino abruptly resigned to take the same position at the University of Arkansas. His heartfelt goodbye was a 78-word form letter left in every player’s locker. “It was extremely sad, from a number of different perspectives,” says Steve Bartkowski, the former Atlanta quarterback who’s now on the franchise board of directors. “It was the beginning of a very, very difficult time for Arthur [Blank].”
With designs on starting over, the Falcons handed Ryan the reins the moment that he was drafted. All he did was turn in what — at the time — was among the best rookie seasons ever. Ryan’s 61 percent completion rate and 7.9 yards per attempt were both the second-highest freshman marks in league history, trailing only Ben Roethlisberger’s figures from 2004. Peyton Manning and Jim Kelly were the only two rookies to pass for more yards than Ryan’s 3,440. All year, Ryan made throws that were beyond his years, including a 26-yard magic trick that stole a win from the Bears in the game’s final six seconds.
These were the types of plays — and wins — that brought about a franchise renaissance. Ryan altered the perception of what incoming quarterbacks could be, lifting the Falcons to an 11–5 finish and a trip to the playoffs. Atlanta became a fixture of the postseason, winning double-digit games in four of Ryan’s first five seasons and rolling to an NFC-best 13–3 record in 2012. With Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and a receiving corps that featured Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones, and Roddy White, the Falcons had assembled a nucleus that was consistently potent. The 2012 campaign felt like their coronation. “We had been together for a long time,” Ryan says. “[That season] was a culmination of four years of wide receivers, running backs, offensive line being together. We were really close.”
Before this fall, the 2012 season was the best of Ryan’s career: 4,719 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, and a 68.6 completion percentage. After staving off Seattle in the divisional round, the Falcons hosted the 49ers in the NFC championship game. Atlanta raced to a 17–0 lead, but then everything fell apart. San Francisco stormed back to take a 28–24 lead in the fourth quarter, and when Ryan failed to connect with White on a last-gasp throw to the end zone, Atlanta’s Super Bowl dreams were gone.
The loss was soul-crushing, a golden opportunity missed. The silver lining, though, was that the Falcons — and their quarterback — seemed destined to become football royalty. Dimitroff didn’t blink in handing Ryan a five-year, $103.8 million contract that summer that placed him among the league’s highest-paid players. “[I thought], ‘This is what’s to come,’” Dimitroff says. “We have a quarterback that’s going to continue to take us to higher and higher levels.”
Instead, the Falcons headed in the other direction. Atlanta plummeted in 2013, going 4–12 as everything went wrong: Left tackle Sam Baker missed 12 games with a knee injury; offseason addition Steven Jackson became a shadow of his former self; White was derailed by lower-body ailments that set his decline into motion; and Jones was placed on the IR that October after re-injuring his right foot. After finishing above .500 in each of Ryan’s first five seasons, the Falcons spent the next three years watching the playoffs from home. The worst of it was their crushing collapse down the stretch last fall. Following a 6–1 start, Atlanta dropped seven of its last nine. Ryan ended the campaign with 16 interceptions, tied for third-most in the league; 10 came during the team’s 2–7 closing stretch.
Ryan had been the man to lead the Falcons back to relevance, but the growing sentiment was that he could take them no further. Once considered the heir apparent to the Brady-Manning generation, he had fallen among the quarterback also-rans. Ryan admits that he heard the complaints about his play more than ever last season, but in a way his midcareer swoon came at a time when he was most ready for it.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned and that I’m better at dealing with at 31,” Ryan says. “I think it would have affected me more at 23 or 24. At 31, you understand what’s important and what’s not. You’re better at dealing with that.”
On an early morning during Ryan’s first OTAs, the rookie quarterback was parked at his spot in a mostly empty locker room when veteran safety Lawyer Milloy strolled by. The then-34-year-old was entering his third season with Atlanta and 13th season overall, already a four-time Pro Bowler who was considered one of the league’s elder statesmen. “You hear that?” Milloy asked, stopping at Ryan’s stall.
Ryan lifted his head. The room was silent. “No … I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly,” Milloy said, explaining that they desperately needed a speaker system to give the place a pulse. Before the players dispersed for their early-summer break, Ryan met with the equipment staff and asked them to look into their options. He would pick up the tab.
A month later, when Milloy walked into the locker room for the first day of training camp, Ryan looked at equipment manager Brian Boigner and told him to hit it. Save for a knowing nod to Milloy, he didn’t mention it again.
Telling the story now, Ryan does a comic rendition of the sound of a heavy, pounding bass. The NFL’s old collective bargaining agreement guaranteed massive rookie contracts for players taken at the top of the draft, and Ryan knew his $72 million deal, landed before he ever took a snap, could be contentious if handled the wrong way. “I felt like a good way to defuse those situations and make yourself one of the guys is to act like one of the guys,” Ryan says. “It’s not that difficult to just be a good dude.”
Among his quarterback’s traits, Dimitroff says that that type of awareness is his favorite. He raves about Ryan’s “incremental leadership,” the process of adapting his assertiveness to his changing standing within the organization. During Ryan’s early days in Atlanta, mainstays like center Todd McClure and icons like tight end Tony Gonzalez took command of the locker room. Ryan drifted into the background, understanding his place in the hierarchy. “He didn’t come in that first year thumping his chest and acting like he owned it all and [that] he was in charge of everything,” Dimitroff says. “He was very mindful each step of the way with what he deemed as leading properly.”
As the veteran voices have departed, Ryan’s status has shifted. He’s now one of the oldest members of Atlanta’s roster, and that means having to ingratiate himself with teammates in a different way. Gone are the days of subtle good deeds. They’ve been replaced by grand overtures, the sort aimed at breaking the Falcons out of their extended funk.
Shortly after the team’s 2015 regular-season finale, Ryan sent an email to members of each position group, gauging interest in a group excursion to Miami later that spring — on him. In all, 27 of his teammates agreed to spend two nights at the W Hotel on South Beach. Mornings included throwing sessions at St. Thomas Aquinas High School; nights featured indulgent group dinners. “When there’s a gap, when you’re 31 and some guys are 22, you want them to know, ‘I’m not that old, and I’m not that big of a stiff,’” Ryan says. “I like to have a good time, too.”
During their meal at the Dutch, chef Andrew Carmellini’s bistro inside the W, Ryan sat next to Robenson Therezie, a 24-year-old safety about to enter his second season. “I got to know him much better in an hour and a half of sitting next to him at dinner than I did in an entire year,” Ryan says. “To me, that’s what was cool.”
The pair talked about Therezie’s love life, wine tastings around Atlanta — anything but football.
“It really meant the world to me,” Therezie says. “It made just feel great as a person and a professional, talking to a guy who’s seen it all.”
Ryan’s resurgence began with some relaxation. After last season ended, with a 20–17 loss to the Saints, he and his wife, Sarah, took a much-needed vacation to Hawaii. In the short break between Week 17 and the start of another offseason, Ryan, as he does every year, took stock of where he should focus his work.
During the second half of 2015, arm fatigue had set in more often than it had earlier in Ryan’s career. Game days weren’t the problem. Adrenaline took care of that. The weariness set in midweek, on Wednesdays in late November after thousands of throws without an extended break. Lacking the chance to work through certain routes, the offense suffered on Sundays. “In order to be really good, you’ve got to practice well,” Ryan says. “You need to work what you’re going to work.” Ryan set out for answers by consulting with trusted voices in the quarterback community. “The unanimous thing,” he says, “was to go out and talk to those guys.”
“Those guys” are Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, who run the 3DQB training facility in Southern California and have a client list that includes Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Carson Palmer. On his way home from Hawaii, Ryan made a stopover at LAX for a three-day trial in House’s program.
His day started with a minutes-long warm-up of simple overhead arm motions. There was no weight involved, but after a few minutes of constant movement, Ryan could feel the lactic acid building in his shoulder. He was worried that when it came time to throw, he wouldn’t be able to lift his arm. “I remember in my head going, ‘All right. If this is the warm-up routine, I understand that I need to do things differently than I’ve done.’” Over the next six months, Ryan made periodic trips to Los Angeles, and by training camp, teammates were already commenting on the life of his throws.
The disappointment of 2015 was enough to send Ryan looking for answers, and he wasn’t alone. While Dimitroff used the early rounds of April’s draft to shore up a defense that ranked 22nd in DVOA, free agency became his means of filling out an offense that already boasted a dangerous trio in Ryan, Jones, and 2014 fourth-round gem Devonta Freeman. The Falcons handed former Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu a five-year, $32.5 million contract to be their no. 2 wideout, and they inked center Alex Mack to a five-year deal that included the most guaranteed money for anyone at the position. In tracing how Atlanta morphed into the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, the cache of weapons it’s assembled is as significant as any transformation from its quarterback.
Ryan’s growing pool of playmakers has provided the Falcons with an answer to nearly any defense tasked with stopping them. Jones leads the league with 1,253 receiving yards and remains superhuman; running back Tevin Coleman has grown into a lethal pass-catching option and shredded the Broncos for 132 yards in a Week 5 statement win; big-play wide receiver Taylor Gabriel — who Atlanta claimed off waivers after the Browns released him a week before the 2016 opener — has given Ryan a complementary deep threat unlike any he’s ever had. “The thing about depth is that it allows you to attack whatever a defense does least well,” Ryan says. “You can do a lot of different things to win a game, and we’re probably as deep as we’ve been since I’ve been around.”
Gabriel has four touchdown catches of 35 yards or more, and having a tertiary receiver who can lift the top off a defense has helped transform Atlanta’s approach. Last season, Ryan was tied for 23rd in average pass length, at 7.74 yards. This year he’s at 8.76, the eighth-longest in football. After tallying 49 passes of at least 20 yards in the 2015 campaign, the Falcons already have 55 through 13 games this fall. On well-coached teams, personnel often dictates the scheme, but Ryan’s willingness to push the ball downfield is also a product of his increased comfort in his second year under coordinator Kyle Shanahan. As the pair evaluated Atlanta’s offense heading into the season, their dialogue was as much about what didn’t work — the depth of certain routes, Ryan’s ability to play on the move out of shotgun compared to under center — as it was about what did.
Almost 30 games into their tenure together, Ryan can sense how their minds have begun to meld. He points to a 47-yard touchdown heave to Gabriel in a 33–32 win over the Packers in Week 8 as proof. The split-safety look he saw presnap was the defense that Shanahan’s call was designed to exploit, and as Ryan barked a dummy cadence, he knew a quality throw meant a touchdown. “I think that frees you up, too, from a confidence standpoint,” Ryan says. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. And I know exactly what he’s thinking.’ I think we’re very much on the same page.”
To understand how a 30-something quarterback can shatter the notion that he’s plateaued, this confluence of factors is the key. Separately, an uptick in arm strength, an improved rhythm with a coordinator, or an expanding arsenal of receivers might have brought marginal progress. Together, they’ve vaulted Atlanta’s offense — and its quarterback — beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. The individual shifts may be small, but the collective result is seismic.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Ryan took the stage for a sparsely attended press conference in the Falcons’ media room. Wearing a plain white T-shirt and TravisMathew cap, he answered the obligatory questions about his troubled history playing against the Cardinals — only the Panthers and Bucs have intercepted him more times throughout his career — and the side dish he was most looking forward to eating. (His wife’s aunt makes a killer squash casserole.) With the holiday looming, it was a quick affair.
Four days later, the Falcons would drop 38 points on Arizona and move to 7–4, good enough for sole possession of first place in the NFC South. A last-minute loss to Kansas City knocked them from that perch the following week, but after throttling the Rams without Jones (turf toe), last year’s collapse is nowhere in sight. Ryan is in the thick of the MVP race, and with two soft defenses (San Francisco and New Orleans) left on their schedule, the Falcons are primed to finish as one of the more prolific offenses in modern NFL history.
Ryan admits that he feels some vindication playing the best football of his career after the chirping that followed him last season, but he refuses to revel in it.
“To stick the middle finger up right now,” he says, “it’s a little bit early.”
He knows the way the league is covered: The schedule lends itself to overreaction, to deifying, and eventually, to demonizing.
“Does it feel good to play well? Damn right, it feels good to play well,” Ryan says. “It beats the alternative of not playing well. But to me, that’s not the point.”
Nine years as the face of a franchise is all but guaranteed to include dozens of swings between those extremes. The truth, Ryan knows, lies somewhere in the middle. Armed with a roster brimming with young talent and a reservoir of knowledge, Ryan is better equipped than ever to warrant mention alongside the game’s best. But he’ll leave that up to someone else.
“In terms of comparisons, I know I’m good enough to win every time we step on the field,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”