|Dave Martin / Associated Press|
|Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has progressed faster than even Falcons coach Mike Smith expected.|
ATLANTA -- Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy has built up a tremendous amount of credibility in 13 NFL seasons. When he speaks, his perspective is serious. Usually pretty heavy stuff.
So don't take what he says about teammate and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan lightly.
"Every time we go out there with him under center we have a chance to win," Milloy said. "As a defensive player, he's the kind of guy you want to give your all for. You want to put the ball in his hands and give him as many chances as possible because, more than likely, he can help you win a ball game -- similar to No. 12 in New England."
That No. 12 is Tom Brady, one of Milloy's former teammates in New England. Milloy respects a lot of his peers but very few as much as Brady. Though Milloy has thought highly of Ryan in the few months he's worked with him, what he witnessed in Sunday's 22-20, last-second victory over Chicago changed perceptions -- in the way a paint job can change the mood and feel of a once lifeless room.
Ryan completed 22 of 30 passes for a brief-career high 301 yards. That's nothing to be taken lightly, but it's also nothing to draw comparisons to Brady either. It's the final 26 yards he threw for, with six seconds remaining, that elevated his stature.
Down 20-19 after a Bears touchdown with 11 seconds left, a lot of rookies -- and a lot of veterans, for that matter -- would have said their Hail Mary's on the sideline then gone on the field and thrown one and lived with the result.
Ryan, though, arranged his offense at Atlanta's 44-yard line -- good field position supplied by a head-scratching, squib kickoff by the Bears. He took the snap and perfectly planted a pass to Michael Jenkins, who made a clutch play to get out of bounds and stop the clock with one tick showing.
That allowed kicker Jason Elam to connect on a 48-yard field goal, 2:49 after he shanked a 33-yard chip shot. Elam was the hero but only because Ryan enabled him to be.
"Our thoughts going onto the field with six seconds left were to be on time with the throw," Ryan said. "The biggest thing was to stay in rhythm. We thought that we could get the completion and get it out of bounds. The play developed just like we had in our minds when we took the field. Michael Jenkins made a great catch. Leaving the field you have the confidence in Jason to make the kick. He's been such a great kicker in his career that you knew he's going to come in and make that kick, and he did that."
Not one mention of I or me. That is another reason his teammates love him.
"He has a lot of attributes you can't coach," Milloy said. "He has an outstanding feel for the game. He's a budding star. He's not a star yet. The one good thing about him is he is a humble individual. He is eager to learn ... just a fierce competitor."
The Falcons are 4-2 going into their bye week, a mark few thought achievable in large part because they were starting a rookie quarterback.
Ryan has completed 93 of 161 passes for 1,164 yards and five touchdowns, numbers that rank him among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league in most categories. There is a lot of football left to be played in the season, but because he has done better than even a lot of his teammates and coaches expected, so too have the Falcons.
"The guy's unbelievable," said center Todd McClure. "He's got ice water going through his veins. He's not playing like a rookie. His level of confidence has been that way from the first few days here. He's been controlling the huddle, controlling the offense, and if you got a young quarterback doing that it trickles downhill and a lot of people get behind him and rally."
While Ryan's late-game exploits helped the Falcons to victory, he carved up one of the league's better defenses for most of the game.
Chicago regularly showed blitz looks but had its linebackers drop into coverage at the last second. Ryan went on quick counts at times when he saw the fronts to catch the line-hugging linebackers out of position. He was almost automatic on intermediate routes as a result. After starting cornerback Charles Tillman went out with a shoulder injury to join fellow starter Nathan Vasher -- who was inactive -- on the sideline, Ryan targeted the edges with Jenkins and personal favorite, Roddy White.
He moved just enough in the pocket to put pressure on certain coverages and he regularly made the deep throws outside the numbers on the field that some scouts and NFL coaches felt he couldn't make in the pro game.
"That quarterback they have is a special player," Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris said.
Ryan played his best game against Chicago a week after playing well in a victory at Green Bay. His coming-of-age process started with solid outings in wins over Detroit and Kansas City. He wasn't very Bradyish in losses to Carolina and Tampa Bay, though, and there likely will be more bumps ahead.
Still, Ryan has raised the bar.
"This guy is not playing like a rookie quarterback," said White, who had nine catches for 112 yards to go with his touchdown. "I don't know how to explain it. He just goes out there (and) does his thing. He stays mentally tough. We're going to win a lot of games with this guy."
Falcons coach Mike Smith said Ryan's learning curve has been accelerated, but he's not surprised by the rookie's progress. From the time Ryan was drafted in April, Smith said the quarterback has that indescribable "it."
Atlanta's rookie general ganager Thomas Dimitroff had the final say in selecting Ryan third overall, and it wasn't an easy call. There was a lot of in-house support for LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. The final decision came down to intangibles Dimitroff felt were important: Swagger, humility, confidence, leadership, diligence and ability.
Those were things Dimitroff saw in No. 12, first-hand.
Dimitroff, who is very measured in his praise of Ryan in order to minimize pressure and expectations, came to Atlanta via New England. As a top personnel director with the Patriots, he helped add players to complement Brady.
It seems Dimitroff's job hasn't changed much.
It's just that now he has to find players to complement Ryan.