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After a brief rest, Ryan ready to build on rookie success

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Matt Ryan spent a few months of his offseason peddling hair care products. Now that he's back at his day job as the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, he's sporting little more than cranial peach fuzz. Totally wash and wear.

Fun time - except for the occasional golf game - is over for the reigning NFL rookie of the year. He's cut back on public appearances and travel and dusted off the right arm he kept idle since Atlanta's first-round playoff loss to Arizona in January.

"I've been really throwing for about two weeks and it was tough," Ryan said. "When it's what you do it's tough to keep that ball down as long as you would like, but I needed to rest my arm."

There was plenty of speculation that Ryan needed the rest because he became arm weary down the final stretch of the season. His passing numbers and efficiency decreased over the last few regular-season games. Ryan never cited arm fatigue but at that point of the season, he'd been throwing for nearly a year straight.

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While Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan solidified their teams' quarterback spots as rookies last season, other teams remain unsettled at the game's most important position. More ...

This time last year he was in full-flinging mode, throwing passes daily for scouts who wanted to gauge his arm strength and accuracy before the NFL draft. He's where Georgia's Matthew Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez are now.

Ryan went No. 3 overall to the Falcons and shortly after being selected, he was throwing again at minicamps, offseason workouts, then training camp. By the time the season was over, he had 434 official game throws and 265 completions for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Those were a fraction of the total tosses he threw that didn't count.

Ryan led Atlanta to 11 wins and its first playoff berth since 2004. After completing 26 of 40 passes in the season-ending loss to the Cardinals, the only thing of note Ryan pitched with his arm was mousse and gel.

"It was a good opportunity to rest my arm," Ryan said. "It was a long offseason (last spring and summer). There were a lot of throws in the offseason. Before that you had to be on point leading up to the draft. You had to be on your game. It was good to get some rest. I'm a little bit rusty but I'm getting back into it and I'm feeling very good."

Ryan's affirmation that the Falcons are his team came after the season, when he was voted captain by his teammates. It's not a title he takes lightly, which is why he has been involved in every aspect of team activities since voluntary workouts started March 23. His willingness to be among the guys is why so many of the guys have a willingness to trust in him.

Though Ryan admits after being drafted by the Falcons he was overwhelmed by everything that came with being a top pick -- and Michael Vick's replacement -- his work ethic and approach to preparation haven't changed much. His circumstances have.

At this point last year, he was loved and loathed by media and the coaches as he prepped for the draft. Loved for his guile and guts and doubted for his supposed questionable decision-making and so-so arm strength.

In other words, the scrutiny endured by Stafford, Sanchez and Kansas State's Josh Freeman is nothing new.

Now, Ryan's the sure thing.

Along with Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, Ryan set the bar so high for rookie starting quarterbacks that expectations for Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman might be unfairly misguided.

Teams could shy away from selecting a quarterback -- possibly with the top pick -- because he might fail to measure up to Ryan or Flacco. Teams also could select a quarterback because Stafford, Sanchez or Freeman could have many of the same qualities that project to similar success.

"It's pretty unbelievable outside of your own shoes to have two rookie quarterbacks come in and go to the playoffs," Ryan said. "I'm not sure if it changed the way people think but it was a good year for (Flacco) and a solid year for myself."

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images
Matt Ryan aims to build off his rookie-of-the-year 2008 campaign.

» Video: Ryan's first career pass

Solid. Catch that?

Ryan's refusal to beat his chest has scored more points with his teammates than you'd think. Players hate when teammates reap praise when things are good then place blame elsewhere when things aren't. What players hate more though is when the self-deprecation is phony.

Ryan has been how he's been since he arrived, so all his teammates know is a humble guy who snatched the starting job by the team's second minicamp and led the Falcons to unexpected success. There is a faith in just about everything he does, even from a jaded fan base that was predominantly upset when Atlanta drafted him over LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.

About the only thing Ryan's ever boasted about -- with prodding -- was the round of 88 he recently shot Augusta National, home of the Masters.

"I'm proud of (the score)," Ryan said. "It's a tough course. I must have three-putted 15 holes over there of the 18 the day I played. I was happy with my 88."

That's one of the few things Ryan will settle for. But don't think, if he excuses himself from his football duties long enough to finagle another rare chance to play at Augusta, he'd be happy with that score again.

Not working to be better isn't how he operates.

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