Just 73 yards shy from setting the Falcons' single-season passing record (Jeff George had 4,143 in 1995), Ryan is in the midst of leading Atlanta to its third playoff season in four years, building a 42-19 mark as a starter in the regular season.
"His maturation process continues to accelerate, and he's becoming, in my mind, one of the elite quarterbacks in this league," Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday.
Ryan has proven to be a consistent, durable winner for a Falcons team that desperately sought a leader in the wake of Michael Vick's exit stage left in August 2007. Atlanta's three starters that season? Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich, a chaotic tangle that ended with the drafting of Ryan in 2008.
Despite his glowing regular-season record, Ryan has yet to win a playoff game -- very likely the missing ingredient here. For Ryan to enter the conversation with Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, he needs to do something they've all done when the regular season is over, and the playoffs have begun.