There always has been something different about the quarterback position, something that can’t be gauged by height or weight or speed or strength or the ability to throw a football 70 yards past the cows, over the barn, through the tire screen and into the feed bucket (when, by the way, just hitting the open tight end over the middle would’ve been fine).
If quarterbacks were measured by physical skills, Jeff George would not have been a cartoon and Joe Montana would not have been a deity. If quarterbacks were measured by fast legs, chiseled abs and ripped biceps, NFL general managers — the experts — would not draft so many colossal busts, crippling their franchise, alienating their fan base and ultimately ensuring their own unemployment.
The Falcons got it right with Matt Ryan. One player. One pick. One decision. Just like that, the owner, the general manager and the coach all look brilliant.
Ryan and the Falcons play a nationally televised game in Dallas Sunday. They are 4-1 this season and 15-6 in 21 regular season games since selecting Ryan third overall, and the biggest question now is what the two players taken ahead of him can do to avoid winding up as an answer on the back of a Trivial Pursuit card.
Tony Romo, the Cowboys’ quarterback, has talent. What he has lacked is the stability, leadership and that does-he-even-care-that-he’s-standing-barefoot-on-hot-coals coolness that Ryan exhibits.
Falcons players who are eight, 10, 12 years older than Ryan are following him. Why? Because leadership comes naturally to him. They sense it, they embrace it and, as center Todd McClure said, “When he says something, you just do it. I can’t explain it. But it’s been that way since he got here.”
Nothing fazes Ryan. His teammates and coaches take turns gushing about his presence, maturity and work ethic. Troy Aikman, a Hall of Famer, says things about Ryan that he won’t say about the quarterback for his former team in Dallas. Tony Dungy likens Ryan to Peyton Manning, his former quarterback in Indianapolis and a Hall of Famer in waiting.
“When I look at quarterbacks, I always look at intangibles first,” Dungy said by phone. “You have to have intelligence and poise under pressure. Ryan has that. Peyton’s ability to remain calm as a young guy stood out more than anything.”
I had to ask Ryan: Has he ever been fazed by anything? After the expected golly-gee-juiced responses, he finally recalled an incident his sophomore year in high school in Philadelphia.
“I had done something in a game that I wasn’t supposed to do, I think on third down, and I was a little more hot-headed than I am now,” he said. “I came off the field. I thought I was right, but I was told by my coach that I should’ve done the other thing. I said, ‘Well, that would’ve made only five yards and I’m trying to make a first down.’ And I got put in my place pretty quickly after that. I learned to keep my mouth shut in those situations.”
Asked what his coach said, Ryan laughed. “The exact quote’s not for print,” he said. “Something to the extent of, ‘You let me coach. You play. If you keep doing that, you won’t be on the field.’ I believed him.”
He was 16. Imagine if we all learned our last lesson at that age.
Tony Gonzalez, in his 13th season, said Ryan has been unlike any quarterback he ever has worked with, adding,”You forget he’s only in his second season.”
Last season, we forgot about youth quickly. He threw a touchdown on his first NFL pass. Four weeks later in Green Bay’s historic Lambeau Field, Ryan led the team to three scores on the first four possessions and a victory. One notable moment came during a TV timeout, when McClure made the mistake of asking the rookie, “What’s the next play?” Ryan, McClure said, “just snapped [and said], ‘Wait! Hold on a second!’”
“He gets in the moment. He gets in the role. You’d think he’s been playing for 12 or 13 years. The funny part is, everybody expects it.”
These are the traits that can’t be measured before a draft. This is where stopwatches and barbells won’t help.