It was a year ago that the course of the Falcons changed. It was the third exhibition of the 2008 preseason that told the new administration what it had suspected since the April draft: That it could go with a rookie quarterback as its starter and get away with it.
We forget now, in the light of a rookie of the year award and a 11-5 season of the highest giddiness and even a playoff turn, how bold that decision was. The Falcons had drafted Michael Vick No. 1 overall in 2001, and he hadn’t started as a rookie. But this was a different time, a different rookie.
We look back and we see it as a no-brainer: You have Matt Ryan and you have Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley — who else are you going to start? But we forget how perilous the state of the Good Ship Falcon was in August 2008. They were widely projected as the NFL’s worst team, and they were coming off the most depressing season in the history of North American team sports. (Quarterback in jail, coach in the Ozarks, et cetera.)
It took guts just to draft Ryan No. 3 overall — the consensus, local and otherwise, held that Glenn Dorsey was the better choice — but it took more to say, “He’s our starter in Week 1 of Year 1.” NFL teams had all but gotten away from that, preferring to nurture, preferring to cover their assets in case a big-name draftee flopped. (Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, et alia.) But that’s why Matt Ryan wasn’t just a good pick: He was the perfect pick at the absolute proper moment.
We on the periphery looked on the Falcons’ unassuming offensive line — considered the NFL’s worst by some observers, lest we forget — and said knowingly, “Putting a rookie quarterback behind those blockers is just one more indication why the Falcons are bush league.” But the new Falcons had seen two things in mini-camp and then in summer drills that we outsiders couldn’t quite grasp.
1. That Matt Ryan was a different sort of rookie.
2. That this offensive line, under the tutelage of Paul Boudreau, could hold up its end.
We should never underrate the second part. Indeed, on the way into the Dome on the night of that third exhibition last year, Thomas Dimitroff told a reporter that the key to starting Ryan would be the Falcons first having convinced themselves internally they could protect him. The first two exhibitions had given them an indication, and the third — a 17-3 victory over Tennessee — was the clincher. Ryan threw 21 passes, completing 15. (Here’s my column from that night, if you’re so inclined.)
The Falcons named Ryan the starter the next day. He threw a touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on his first delivery of the regular season. He took a frightful beating in the second week in Tampa Bay but played better in the second half than the first, and that was when the Falcons knew beyond all doubt they’d made the proper choice. The kid was a keeper. The kid was a kid by no measure other than age.
We forget now how major that decision was: Say the line had broken down and Ryan had thrown 32 interceptions — Peyton Manning did as a rookie — and the season after going 4-12 the Falcons had gone 3-13 and their No. 1 draft pick had been a first-year bust. Would we Atlantans have washed our hands of NFL football altogether?
We’ll never know. All we know is this: On Saturday night the Falcons were to play another third exhibition of another preseason, and there’s no reason to feel bad about them or their future or their brain trust. Or their quarterback.
(OK, folks. I’ll be here all night, chatting and cracking semi-wise. If you’d care to join me, I’d be obliged. It’d get mighty lonely in the big ol’ Dome without you.)