By Robert Weintrub
When he first took over as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan was obscured by Michael Vick's enormous shadow. Vick's electrifying play while with the Falcons left him immensely popular in Atlanta, even after the dogfighting and his role in the decimation of the franchise. For a sizable chunk of mainly African-American fans, there was simply no replacing the excitement Vick brought.
Brick by brick, Ryan's sterling play over the last few seasons has mostly eradicated Vick's psychic stranglehold on the Atlanta sporting green. Sure, every quarterback -- even the Bradys and Mannings of the world -- get some criticism from the locals. C'est l'equipe. But to most fans, Ryan is a top quarterback with a new and justified huge bankroll in his pocket and a good chance at a Lombardi Trophy, if the Falcons defense can reliably tackle anyone and a break or two go Atlanta's way, for once. In other words, he's pretty much sitting atop life's pyramid, and aside from a few cheap shots about his skinny (by NFL standards) frame, he doesn't suffer many slings and arrows any more.
But inside the perimeter ("ITP," as the locals differentiate the city of Atlanta from the suburban sprawl), there remains a segment of the populace that flat out distrusts and dislikes Matty Ice, and not just for the usual reasons related to ill-timed interceptions. That anger directed Ryan's way is seldom heard inside the Georgia Dome, but on alternate forums, like local sports radio.
Here is the part of the article where we stipulate that sports radio, like Twitter, can often be a shadow world, an insular culture that warps regular consumers into believing all manner of concocted bull are popularly held beliefs. That said, the continued assault within signal range of Atlanta's three -- count 'em, three -- jock talk stations upon Ryan goes beyond the norm for a medium which typically caters to paranoid agoraphobes and people angry about being stuck in traffic. "They are a small minority of the population," says Matt Chernoff, co-host of the afternoon drive time show "Chuck and Chernoff" on 680 The Fan, the highest-rated of Atlanta's stations. "But they are the loudest."
Now, it would be simple to dismiss this phenomenon as the bottom end of a low down and dirty means of communication. But there's something more complicated at work here that can't be dismissed, and it's endemic of genuine feelings in the community. Even as Ryan was having a tremendous season on the field in 2012, off the field his franchise was involved in often fraught negotiations for a new stadium, one that almost certainly won't benefit the mostly poor and black residents near the planned spot for the new field, just as the Georgia Dome and Turner Field didn't do much for them, despite promises to the contrary.
So there's more than just the Vick Factor at play. As Chernoff points out, "that was definitely a reason people didn't like Ryan a few years ago, but not so much any more." In its place is something less petty and personality-driven. Ryan is no longer perceived as being the interloper -- he's the overlord. He's viewed as a tool of a power structure that games the system (Falcons owner Arthur Blank received a chunk of public money for construction, though, to be fair, not nearly as much as other owners have extorted across the sporting landscape) while the less fortunate get left behind yet again. To those unwilling to embrace Ryan, no matter how many touchdown passes he throws, he is merely a digestible public face for a rapacious corporation.
The ongoing spat over a pair of historic black churches that sit on the land where the Falcons prefer to build the new stadium has only exacerbated matters. The churches, one of which is over 150 years old, need to be bought off and demolished in order for construction to proceed. Public outrage forced the city, which is in partnership with the Falcons to build the stadium, to pony up millions to buy them off (one deal is tentatively made, negotiations continue on the second). Mayor Kasim Reed, a strong supporter of the new stadium, has seen his popularity flounder in the last year, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has "taken as many scars and hits and bruises as anybody in this stadium process."
Reed, who is African-American, and Blank are the power brokers behind the new stadium rampage through town, but Ryan is the most visible representative of the organization. He is perceived by those unable to cash in on the Falcons success and the stadium deal as a piece of vanilla extract who was shoved down the throats of the African-American community that worshipped Vick, just as the replacement for the perfectly good Georgia Dome was jammed through despite their loud protestations. It isn't fair to him, but then many things in life aren't fair. And that's the point.
In this atmosphere, Ryan is forever "lucky," "a product of having great receivers," and a "noodle-armed" quarterback who lacks the fortitude to "win the big one." Ryan at last got a playoff win under his belt last season. But a couple of turnovers in the second half of the NFC title game, a contest in which the Falcons blew a large lead at home, brought the naysayers out in full force once again. Those inclined to hate on Matty Ice were emboldened. Talking down a player everyone else holds up to worship is the one area they can feel powerful in a system where they are mainly powerless.
The good news is sports is such a fluid canvas for public sentiment that Ryan can to win over his detractors simply by winning an extra couple of games this winter. Bringing a championship to this title-starved city would paper over just about any ill will, and should Ryan lead a parade float down Peachtree Street next February, he should at last reach the public standing in his own town that his play deserves.
At least for a year-long honeymoon period. But this being sports, should he fail to repeat, the segment of Atlanta, the bottom range of the 99 percent that has never embraced him might just turn on Ryan again.
Robert Weintraub is the author of the books "The Victory Season" and "The House That Ruth Built." He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.