FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — There are quarterbacks in the NFL who can be taken down a dark alley with a line of questioning from media and made to say anything. Lead them, bait them, and their sound bite can be made into a barb. Prick enough and pretty soon they are questioning the coach’s right to call plays and a teammate’s loyalty or heart.
Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger yapped just this week on a radio show about the failings of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell. The NFL quarterback, all full of himself, can be made to pontificate.
Matt Ryan is the kid who went to Catholic school and who does not want to publicly scold.
One of the hallmarks of the post-Michael Vick era in Atlanta has been harmony. Ryan is the sentry at the gate. No sniping allowed. It’s a good thing, because the Falcons can use all the harmony they can muster this week.
They are 1-2 and have never been two games under .500 in Ryan’s six seasons, but they look faulty on offense with the Patriots (3-0) here Sunday night. The offensive line is shaky and does not provide time for a too-vertical pass game. Dirk Koetter, the veteran offensive coordinator, is being ridiculed for not being bold enough with a lead in a 27-23 loss last Sunday to the Dolphins. Mike Smith, the head coach, was berated by the public for his decisions in the clutch in Miami.
None of that seeps into the clubhouse, mostly because of Ryan. His nickname is Matty Ice because of 22 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. It might as well be Matty Nice. He won’t even criticize the quarterbacks who criticize.
“We’ve got good people,” Ryan said when asked about the culture of the locker room. “I can’t comment for what other people do and what other people say, but we’ve got good people.”
Ryan, 28, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “You are not going to hear me talk about other guys. You are not going to hear me talk about coaches or anything like that. It’s not who I am.”
His ratings with the media sag because he does not offer up the zinger — ever — but Ryan’s quarterback rating, as usual, is first rate. He is sixth in the NFL (100.4), even with Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White hobbled by a high ankle sprain, the offensive line being reshuffled, and the running game inconsistent.
In three games, Ryan has completed 68.1 percent of his passes and is averaging a little more than 300 passing yards. For the Falcons to have a chance, he has to play well against the Patriots, but Atlanta does have other resources. When the Dolphins devoted too many defensive backs to the passing game, the Atlanta running game perked up and gashed Miami for 146 yards.
The Patriots, with one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, will not be easy to run on unless Ryan can pepper the field to star receiver Julio Jones (27 catches) and tight end Tony Gonzalez, the all-time leader in catches at his position. Gonzalez has just 11 receptions for 93 yards this season because of constant jamming and double teams. Ryan also needs White (seven catches) to return to his productive self.
Ryan has one session with local media each week in front of his locker and is rarely inclined to get too expansive on answers about himself or game plans. The inclination is to think he finds the media a waste of time, but Koetter said Ryan practices himself silly, so perhaps it is a matter of just being antsy to go do more work, rather than stand and talk to the media.
Indeed, Ryan is the king of self-scouting. Koetter said his quarterback watches tape of his launch point, studies his mechanics in the pocket, examines arm slot, and everything in between. The media does not help in those areas, therefore his weekly time for them seems purposely limited to 9-11 minutes.
“Matt is so self-critical that he is always working on his fundamentals, always working on his accuracy, always working on his footwork,” Koetter said. “People wouldn’t believe how much Matt obsesses about his launch point and where he is in the pocket in relationship to the type of protection we’re using.”
The Falcons are on the hot seat this week. They have had two seasons to get the offensive line in order for a serious Super Bowl run, but Ryan is still only able to gather the snap from center, read, and throw. He does not have time to throw long. There is criticism of the line and the play-calling because, once again, the Falcons lost a lead in the second half to the Dolphins. They have been accused over and over the last two seasons of sitting still with the lead rather than letting Ryan build a bigger cushion.
Koetter scoffs at that notion. He understands he has one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL and he swears he does not purposely choke the life out of Ryan in the second half. If the Falcons seem too passive on offense it is because Ryan does not have time to look far downfield.
“One of our observations coming out of the [Dolphins] game is that we need to have more vertical shots,” Koetter said. “That’s something that we are probably lacking right now. We have to get more of an element of the vertical game in there. There’s more than one reason why. You’re not scaring the defense if you are not threatening them vertically.”
Ryan, of course, would not dare question a game plan or tactics when talking to media. His diplomacy rubs off on people. Koetter would not even give a hint that he thought the offensive line was not doing its job.
Even in 2012, Falcons running back Michael Turner, whose role was downsized, would not chirp too loudly. It is a credit to Turner’s personality, but also the essence of these Falcons with Ryan. Just shut up in public.
It’s the Ryan Way. Be nice. Stay even-keeled. Jeremy Trueblood, a Falcons offensive lineman who played with Ryan three seasons at Boston College, said Matty Nice has always been a swell guy with teammates.
“All good quarterbacks are positive people,” Trueblood said. “Matt’s a glass-half-full kind of guy, ever since I’ve known him.”
Ryan’s makeup is why the Falcons lavished him with a five-year, $103.75 million contract in July.
“You never see him riding really high, you never see him jumping in the air,” said Dave Archer, a former Falcons quarterback and the team’s radio analyst. “He’s had 22 games where he has come back to win and I’ve never seen him go completely bonkers because they won a game. He stays even-keeled. He’s like the old clothesline your mom hung the clothes on, straight and there every day.”