FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons have a quarterback who, we’re led to believe, doesn’t sweat. Seriously. As in, perspire. Matt Ryan can go through a punishing three-hour workout, sit in the heated whirlpool at the team practice facility and then devour a plate of jalapenos for lunch and still stay as dry as a Seinfeld joke.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Falcons kicker Matt Bryant. “It’s something to behold.”
“No, not really.”
You see, that’s the impression we get about Ryan, that he’s unflappable, never gets rattled, refuses to shiver or shake when a situation calls for urgency. The kind of guy who laughs at the slasher scene in a horror flick. This amazing sense of cool is a big reason the Falcons find themselves in the NFC title game, because their quarterback doesn’t flinch when a football game winds up and takes a swing at his facemask.
But now, as Manti Te’o might say, there’s been some fabricating going on.
“Well,” said running back Michael Turner, “I’ve seen Asante Samuel say some things that makes him turn red in the face. Asante knows what buttons to push. Matt’ll get a little flustered. You can embarrass him.”
A locker room confession, then. On occasion, a teammate will do or say something to “Matty Ice” that will cause the kind of reaction the public rarely if ever sees. Yes, Ryan is known to raise an eyebrow at some of the lowbrow humor hurled his way, and although no one has actual proof in terms of still shots or video, Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud claims to be a witness.
“Honestly, Matt is like one of the guys,” said DeCoud. “You give it to him, he gives it to you back. We give him hell, talk about him, crack jokes on him, all that. You can shake him up a bit. You can break him down.
“But only in here,” said DeCoud, pointing around the locker room. “Not out there.”
When the Falcons were left frozen and shell-shocked after the Seahawks rallied from 20-points down in the final minute to take a one-point lead last Sunday, the calmest person in the Georgia Dome walked over to his helmet and then his teammates.
“Let’s go!” Ryan yelled. “Let’s do this. We’ve been in this position before. Let’s do our jobs.”
Ryan had helped put the Falcons in that position with a poor throw that resulted in an interception on Atlanta’s previous possession. But that seemed like months ago, at least to him. “I wasn’t thinking about anything at that moment except winning the game,” he said, and in his mind, even with 25 seconds left and starting deep in his own end, there was no other option.
Two completions later, the Falcons were in range of Bryant’s winning field goal, and here they are, a home, dome win away from the Super Bowl.
“As a guy who’s been around for five years, an NFL game can be difficult and yet no matter the situation, you need to keep playing through it,” Ryan said. “If you’re worried about other things that people watching at home are thinking about, then you’re taking away from the things you need to do.”
The Falcons have had Ryan for five years, enough time for him to show a confidence flaw that doesn’t appear to exist. He’s a clean-cut face of the franchise who’s thrown for almost 19,000 yards and 127 touchdowns with a 62-percent completion rate. It wasn’t so simple. Ryan arrived and replaced a disgraced icon who caused the team to crash along with him. Even in the throes of the dogfighting scandal that led to his departure, Michael Vick still had lots of fans in Atlanta. Not only was he good, he was a black quarterback in a black town, and in Ryan’s rookie season a segment of Vick fans continued to wear No. 7 jerseys to games, either out of stubborn and blind loyalty or protest or maybe both.
So Ryan’s composure was tested on the day he first pulled on a Falcons jersey. It didn’t take long to win the affections of the Vick crowd and the rest of Atlanta, to the point where today, fans of all colors have embraced No. 2, now clearly the No. 1 local athlete with Chipper Jones retired. During that period of transition from the Vick era, Ryan remained calm and sure, a personality trait that continues to benefit him to this day.
“He tends not to panic,” said Turner. “The whole team feeds off of his confidence. Rubs off on everybody. That’s a good leader, someone who doesn’t let anything get to him.”
He was, in a sense, groomed to be a cool customer. His older brother, Mike, was the star athlete in the family, and Mike allowed Matt to tag along and join football and basketball games on one condition: He kept his mouth shut. That was the rule in place for Matt: Don’t complain or question. Just follow and observe.
So Ryan learned early about the value of poise. The “Matty Ice” nickname began in high school and grew during a basketball game when he took an elbow to the face. Blood everywhere. He kept playing. Only after leading his team to a win did he get his 30 stitches.
At Boston College, he played the second half of a season on a broken foot. Ryan had the choice of getting surgery, which would’ve ended his season, or dealing with the pain. Easy call for Ryan. He limped through and still carried BC.
His command of the huddle and the Falcons locker room was also firm from the start. As a rookie he didn’t hesitate to tell veterans to shut up. Quickly, Ryan established himself in the league by showing an accurate if not particularly strong arm and by making the right decisions when it mattered most. All that did was raise hopes for the Falcons and ultimately led to disappointment when Ryan couldn’t win a playoff game, going 0-for-3 in his career before the Seattle win. It took plenty of composure to grit his teeth when constantly being asked about his playoff record while anxiously awaiting the next chance to get beyond that issue, once and for all.
“I think everyone did a great job of not letting that distract us and just getting the job done and moving on,” Ryan said.
There are probably other events in his life that caused Ryan to break into a cold sweat, like when he proposed to his wife or when the Falcons called his name on draft day or the most recent time when Samuel, the Falcons’ designated trash talker-prankster, pulled a fast one. As long as Ryan confines these human emotions outside the Georgia Dome, and remains an iceman inside, the Falcons are good.
“Whether we’re up by 14, down by one, whether he just threw a pick or a touchdown, whatever it may be, it doesn’t matter,” said Bryant. “He’s the same all the time. He just moves on to the current situation. It’s pretty neat to watch.”