When Matt Ryan became a Falcon on draft day in 2008, Michael Vick was sitting in a prison cell at Leavenworth. So there was no ceremonial passing of the torch. Maybe just an easing of Arthur Blank’s headache.
To Ryan, Vick has been only a shadow, a ghost, a name he hears in press conferences. But the reminders have been constant, particularly with Vick’s remarkable rebirth in Philadelphia, and the biggest question going into Sunday night was how Ryan would handle his predecessor’s return.
“To me, having not been here and having not played with him and understanding how difficult it is to play regardless of what the circumstances are in this league, I wouldn’t allow myself to get caught up in it,” Ryan said late Sunday night.
Was it really that easy? Or is this just one of those things where we’ll never really know how much it has bothered him? No matter. Even if Vick’s first start against the Falcons — and against Ryan — stirred fans and maybe some members of the organization (Blank?) into a far greater frenzy than Ryan, this much is certain: The exorcism is complete. The Falcons didn’t just beat Philadelphia, 35-31. They beat Vick.
Ryan beat Vick.
Yes, we are reminded constantly it’s all about team. Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez and so many others certainly played key roles in this game. But Ryan is the face of this team. A team that used to be Vick’s, in a city that used to be Vick’s, in a league that used to Vick’s 24/7 — and recently it seems like it is all over again.
If the Falcons had lost, Ryan’s face would’ve been targeted for most of the pies. That’s just the way it works in football, and certainly in Atlanta, given the backdrop.
It wasn’t nearly the best game of Ryan’s career. But in some ways, it might’ve been the most impressive. The Falcons had flat-lined. Ryan had two interceptions. The air had gone out of the offense and the building. Ryan was getting hammered behind an ever-collapsing offensive line. Philadelphia had turned a 21-10 deficit into a 31-21 lead. Even with Vick now on the sideline and looking woozy, the game appeared over late in the third quarter. Vick would win again, just as he did as a backup in the Georgia Dome in 2009, when he ran for a touchdown and threw another in a 34-7 Philly win
Ryan was injured that night. But he watched. He saw. He knew what it meant.
On Sunday night, with the Falcons losing by 10 points, Ryan showed his greatest strength. He didn’t change.
“In the huddle, he just said ‘Let’s go down and score. We’ve got this,’” wide receiver Harry Douglas recalled.
And the Falcons did. Twice.
Through nearly three quarters, Ryan completed only 8 of 17 passes for 102 yards. But he came out firing in a no-huddle offense. On first down, he completed a 17-yarder to Roddy White (”You want to get that first big play to get you moving,” he said.) Then came a 13-yarder to Gonzalez, a 14-yarder to Julio Jones, a 15-yarder to Douglas. He went 7 for 9 on the drive, the last being a one-yard touchdown flip to fullback Ovie Mughelli to close to 31-28.
It was like Ryan suddenly plugged the team into a light socket. He even called his own plays in the no-huddle.
“He was going up to the line, calling the plays that he likes to call, and he was getting the ball in good positions for us,” White said.
The winning touchdown drive was mostly about Turner, who broke off a 61-yard run on first-and-17 from the Falcons’ 13. But Ryan hit Douglas and Gonzalez on consecutive passes, the latter coming on third down to set up Turner’s go-ahead touchdown.
“I thought our quarterback really showed his toughness,” coach Mike Smith said. “He took a number of shots and he kept going. When you’ve got guys like that, you’ve got a chance to be successful. He’s a tough Irishman.”
In the end, it was Ryan who brought his team back, rebounding from a poor opener in Chicago. It was Ryan who threw a career-high four touchdown passes and won the game, while Vick was sitting in the locker room with a concussion, a sore neck and three turnovers (two led to Falcons’ touchdowns).
Ryan downplayed the significance of this night.
“We have a big game against Tampa Bay next week,” he said, as if reading from a cue card.
Something tells me it means more than he will ever admit. It certainly did for others.
By Jeff Schultz