He’s expected to be the leader of the Atlanta Falcons, yet he must constantly prove to those around him that he’s worthy of the role.
“It takes a different kind of guy to lead a group of men, to get those guys to play for him,” said receiver Julio Jones, a teammate of Ryan’s the last two years. “Matt does a great job of that. He talks to everybody like they’re a man. Everybody wants to play for him.”
Heading into his sixth season, Ryan is firmly established as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. He’s set for life financially after signing a contract extension worth nearly $104 million at the start of training camp — including $59 million in guaranteed money. He’s viewed by everyone as the face of the franchise.
That’s not enough for Ryan.
He wants a ring.
“I understand there’s a business side to it,” Ryan said Wednesday, standing in front of his locker. “I’m extremely grateful for the place I’m at and the opportunity I’ve been given here. But that’s never been a motivation for me. My motivation is championships. That’s what drives me.”
Ryan has accomplished plenty in his career — five straight winning seasons, four playoff appearances, two NFC South titles. But, despite having home-field advantage in both 2010 and last season, the Falcons have yet to reach the Super Bowl with Matty Ice.
Last season, they came excruciatingly close, squandering a big lead in the NFC championship game and getting stopped on the San Francisco 10-yard line as they were driving for a potential winning touchdown in the closing seconds.
The 49ers moved on to the Super Bowl. Ryan and the Falcons went back to work, trying to figure out how to get over that hump.
“Part of it is we’ve been so close in the past. Part of it is we’ve fallen short, too,” Ryan said. “The combination of those things keeps you motivated.”
After a slight dip in his second season, Ryan’s rating has improved each of the last three years. He’s coming off a league-leading 68.6 percent completions and career bests in yards (4,719) and touchdowns (32), with only 14 interceptions.
“He learns from his mistakes and gets better every year,” running back Jason Snelling said. “He expects nothing less than to get better on a year-to-year basis, even a game-to-game basis.”
Ryan usually picks out a few parts of his game for extra work during the offseason. A year ago, he spent more time in the weight room, looking to be as strong as the end of the season as he was the beginning, and it paid off with the first playoff victory of his career. This summer, he focused on his footwork and a few other things he’d prefer not to share.
“I understand with the position I play, that it carries extra weight for whatever reason,” Ryan said. “I’ve always just tried to lead by example. I work as hard as I can and try to have myself as prepared as I can. That’s probably why the guys have bought into it.”
The Falcons have gone to great lengths to surround their quarterback with some of the league’s top skill-position players, including Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez and receiver Roddy White. If a shaky offensive line holds up, the high-powered Falcons have a chance to put even more points on the board, having signed free agent Steven Jackson to give Ryan a more versatile running back than the previous starter, bulky Michael Turner.
“I knew Matt was a calm, cool, collected guy who really operates things like the general of this offense,” Jackson said. “He was a huge reason I decided to come to Atlanta. He has such a huge presence on the field.”
Off the field, too.
Ryan organizes dinners with his teammates from time to time, looking to build camaraderie. He doesn’t just invite those who play on his side of the line, either.
“Defense, offense, he does it for everybody,” Jones said.
And now that Ryan has all that money, there’s an added responsibility.
The checks, Jones said gleefully, always go to the quarterback.
For Ryan, that’s a small price to pay if he winds up with a ring.
“My motivation,” he said, “is higher than it’s ever been.”
NOTES: WR Roddy White returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since spraining his left ankle in an Aug. 15 preseason game. He took part in both individual and team drills on a limited basis, and the Falcons are hopeful he’ll be able to play in Sunday’s season opener against the New Orleans Saints. ... CB Asante Samuel (thigh) and LB Stephen Nicholas (quadriceps) were also listed as limited. ... K Matt Bryant is back at 100 percent after missing time in the preseason with a sore back.