ATLANTA (AP) — Matt Ryan is confident and self-assured, not the least bit threatened by the quarterback who came before him.
Yet he knows how this works. When Michael Vick returns to Atlanta for the first time as Philadelphia’s starter, there will be no escaping the comparisons between No. 7 and Matty Ice.
Plenty of Falcons fans will be wearing Vick’s old jersey and cheering for the guy who played in Atlanta for a half-dozen thrilling seasons. If he leads the Eagles (1-0) to another victory Sunday night, some of those same fans will undoubtedly be muttering that their team should’ve stuck with the guy who went to prison for nearly two years.
None of which is fair to Ryan, of course.
“I don’t worry about it,” he insisted. “That’s the nature of the NFL right now. In the age we’re in and the media-driven sport we’re in, you’re going to answer those questions. It’s part of the deal.”
Even Vick gave a shout-out to the guy who filled his shoes. When someone asked if he planned to declare the Georgia Dome “my house” — as Deion Sanders did in the 1990s after returning to Atlanta in a visiting uniform — the Eagles quarterback quickly shot down the idea.
“That’s not my house,” Vick said. “That’s Matt Ryan’s house. I’m just a visitor.”
Ryan has every right to be proud of his resume in Atlanta. He’s led the Falcons (0-1) to three straight winning seasons, something no other quarterback — not even Vick — pulled off. Heck, they’d never even strung together two in a row before he arrived in 2008.
The Falcons have gone to the playoffs twice with Ryan at the helm, and they’re coming off a 13-3 season and NFC South championship. The only thing he’s missing is a postseason victory, and there’s still plenty of time for that.
“He’s one of the young starters in this league, and he’s going to be one of the great ones,” Vick said. “He just has to keep working as he continues to get better. I’m excited for him.”
But Vick still casts a long shadow in these parts. Love him or hate him, there’s no doubt he made Atlanta a relevant NFL franchise.
Most everyone has their favorite memory, whether it was the Vick-led Falcons becoming the first visiting team ever to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field, or maybe it was that year they made it all the way to the NFC championship game. Most everyone remembers some improbable run — the overtime touchdown in Minnesota, perhaps? — or a throw no one else could’ve made.
Fair enough. Those were dazzling times. But this is Ryan’s team now, and he’s doing just fine.
“I’m going to get in his ear and I’m going to tell him, ‘Don’t even listen to it, don’t read about it. When they ask you a question, just say I’m going to play ball,”‘ Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “But you know what? I don’t even have to say that to Matt. What I know of Matt, he’s a poised guy. He’s not going to let that creep into his mind. He’s going to go out there play like he always does and make plays for us.”
Ryan certainly needs to make more plays than he did in the season opener. He was sacked five times and had two of Atlanta’s three turnovers in an ugly 30-12 loss to the Chicago Bears.
“We did a number of uncharacteristic things,” Ryan said. “We made a lot of mistakes we don’t normally make. That’s something we have to address. We’ve got to improve on the three turnovers we had last week. You certainly can’t do that against a good football team and expect to win.”
The Falcons also struggled to wrap up tackles, letting a couple of short throws turn into plays of more than 50 yards. That’s area of particular concern against Eagles coach Andy Reid, who considers the screen pass just another element of his running game.
“We had entirely too many missed tackles,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
“Fundamentally, tackling is something that you have to be proficient at and we were not very proficient in our tackling in the ball game and that led to explosive plays. They had two 50-plus-yard plays where the ball was actually thrown behind the line of scrimmage.”
Now, the Atlanta defense has to deal with Vick, who wasn’t especially sharp in Philadelphia’s opener but still threw for 187 yards, ran for 98 more and tossed a couple of touchdown passes.
“He’s the best running quarterback ever to play the game, and his passing is very much improved,” Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters said. “I think he’s a top-five quarterback passing the ball as well.”
The Eagles gave a glimpse of their offensive potential against St. Louis. Even though the revamped line had trouble protecting Vick, and the running game didn’t get going until the second half, Philadelphia still finished with a 100-yard rusher, a 100-yard receiver and a quarterback who accounted for nearly 300 yards.
The Falcons need much more balance than they showed against Chicago. Falling behind early, they wound up throwing 47 times, compared with only 14 rushing attempts. Michael Turner still rushed for 100 yards on just 10 carries, but Atlanta prefers him to pile up the yards with far more handoffs.
“We don’t want to throw the ball 47 times and have that type of discrepancy in terms of the number of pass plays to run plays,” Smith said.
On the other hand, the Falcons want to break more long plays in the passing game. That’s why they dealt much of their future to trade up in the draft for receiver Julio Jones. While Ryan threw for 319 yards, Atlanta’s offense failed to reach the end zone (the team’s only TD came on an interception return).
The Falcons should be one of the league’s more dynamic offensive teams with Ryan, Jones, Gonzalez, Turner and top receiver Roddy White. They sure didn’t show it against the Bears.
“Last week was really, really bad,” White said. “When we looked at the film, there was so many things we did wrong.”
Nothing that can’t be fixed, according to Smith.
“We’re disappointed,” the coach said, “but not discouraged.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)