FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — For Matt Ryan, there are none of those annoying questions about his playoff record.
Now, everyone wants to know if the Atlanta Falcons can bounce back from their worst season since his college days.
Ryan and the Falcons endured a miserable 2013, managing only four wins after nearly making the Super Bowl the previous year. With little help around him because of injuries and a leaky offensive line, Matty Ice was saddled with a one-dimensional offense.
That was a big reason he had unwanted career highs in pass attempts, interceptions and sacks.
As the 29-year-old Ryan heads into Sunday’s season opener against the New Orleans Saints, the expectations for Atlanta haven’t been this low since his rookie season back in 2008, when he took over a team that was supposed to be rebuilding after Michael Vick – and immediately guided them to the playoffs.
Since then, Ryan has clearly established himself as one of the league’s upper-echelon quarterbacks but still lacks the one thing that sets the great ones apart.
“As a quarterback, you certainly feel responsible for doing your part,” Ryan said. “It’s a production-based league. You’ve got to produce. You’ve got to play well.”
While he plays a position that will always be the center of attention, Ryan warrants little blame for what happened last season. He lost his most dangerous receiver, Julio Jones, to a season-ending injury after only five games. Atlanta’s other top receiver, Roddy White, sustained a sprained ankle in the preseason and didn’t resemble himself until late in the year, long after hope was lost.
The biggest problem was the guys up front. Ryan was sacked 44 times – 16 more than his previous career high – and hurried more than 200 times. He couldn’t turn to the running game, either; the Falcons ranked last in that category with a measly 77.9 yards per game.
Ryan said he’s confident the line will be much more effective despite the loss of left tackle Sam Baker, who tore up a knee in the preseason. First-round pick Jake Matthews took over Baker’s spot, and the Falcons also have a new starter at right guard with Jon Asamoah.
“I love where the offensive line is at,” Ryan insisted. “Those guys really had a productive training camp. Obviously, they’ve taken their fair share criticism throughout the offseason. But I think they’ve shown up every day at work, and on the practice field, with the right attitude.”
He was also cheery about the running game, even though Steven Jackson didn’t play at all in the preseason because of a hamstring injury. Jackson is expected to go against the Saints, but there are plenty of questions about how effective he’ll be at age 31 coming off the worst season of his career
Ryan pointed to others in the backfield, where veteran backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith are joined by fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman from national champion Florida State.
“Getting Steven back is huge,” Ryan said. “But there’s a lot of depth for us at the running back positions. We can go three or four deep and have fresh guys out there who are capable of making big plays.”
Before last season, the biggest mark against Ryan was his postseason record. Despite leading the Falcons to a pair of NFC South titles and four playoff appearances, his record in the games that really matter is just 1-4.
Atlanta has twice lost at home after posting the conference’s best record during the regular season, including a bitter setback against San Francisco in the NFC championship game. The 49ers rallied from a 17-point deficit and stopped Ryan’s final drive at the 10-yard line to preserve a 28-24 victory.
Even so, there’s no doubt he is the guy everyone looks up to in the Falcons’ locker room.
“His leadership is probably top of the charts for any quarterback I’ve ever played with,” newcomer Devin Hester said. “If you didn’t know how Matt Ryan looks, you wouldn’t even know it was Matt Ryan. Normally, the quarterbacks kind of shy away, stick with their guys, keep to themselves. But he’s open to the locker room, whether it be a practice-squad dude or anybody, he treats everyone the same. He mingles with everybody.”
Saints coach Sean Payton expects Ryan to lead an Atlanta resurgence.
“You hit stretches of adversity,” Payton said. “It tests the resiliency of your club. But players, especially players like Matt Ryan, will respond and lead others to the correct response.”