Ryan was a revelation in his rookie season, throwing 265 completions in 434 attempts, 16 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, leading what most people thought would be a moribund team in years of rebuilding to the playoffs.
"Teams that are usually successful are the teams that have a quarterback in place," Smith said about the decision to take Ryan from Boston College third overall. "It’s not to say that it is always the case. But I think always as a coach you’ve got to develop a mature game plan based on your personnel. When you have a quarterback this not is ready, it sure opens up a whole lot more avenues because he’s a guy who touched the ball on every snap. “
The one advantage for Ryan was that, with a team in severe flux after the Vick and Petrino nightmares, he got to compete right away. Smith said at the Owner's Meetings (and also told me at the Combine) that it was a case of "the best player will win out.'
"Our philosophy was that we were going to have an open competition at quarterback and all of the positions," Smith said. "We stated that to the team very early on in the process. It became evident early to us, as a coaching staff, after the second game, preseason game, that Matt was the best quarterback on our roster. I think it became evident to the players as well. Sometimes the players know before the coaches. When they see a guy, they’ll know and say ‘this guy can play.'”
Did the success of Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco raise the bar for guys like Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez this year? Most believe that Ryan, especially, was a real outlier in terms of performance, and that you can't compare other rookie quarterbacks to him. “It is a copycat league in some cases, I think it is the individual. Matt and Joe were very, very successful this year and I really believe that both of those guys, because of their college experience, even though Joe was out of a smaller college (Delaware), I believe I-AA, he was a fifth-year senior. Sometimes at that position, you have to take that into consideration.”
One thing Smith was definite about -- the Falcons did their due diligence on Ryan, and after what they saw on film and in person, there was no doubt that he was their man. "We spent a lot of time looking at the film," Smith said. "We believe that’s a player's DNA. You can look at the numbers and do the testing, but it’s really based on what you see on the tape. He played very efficiently in some big games throughout his career. What was most impressive about Matt was that he had a lot of come from behind victories.
"The other thing that you have to look for, especially at the quarterback position, is we spent a whole lot of time trying to find out what this guy is all about. We spent, it was interesting because he was a fifth year senior and he’d played under two head coaches (at Boston College -- Tom O’Brien and Jeff Jagodzinski) We were able to get a different perspective. We went down to North Carolina State and spent some time talking with the coaches there about Matt Ryan. Sometimes that’s a different perspective because the guy is gone. One of the things we learned about Matt in our investigation is that he was an outstanding person, outstanding communicator and a natural leader. I think a natural leader is important. You can't entitle a guy to be a leader. You’ve got to earn it.
"We had a private workout and we had a private meeting. I think in those situations what you try to do is get him up the board and evaluate his football knowledge and throw things at him. Bill Musgrave and Mike Mularkey, our quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, were the ones assigned to do battle with him. As well as myself and (general manager) Thomas Dimitroff. They put him through the board work and tried to give him as much as they could and try to see how he’d adjust on the run.
Smith did see Stafford at Georgia's recent Pro Day, but since Atlanta's needs are more on defense, the observation was more general. “When I’m at a pro day, I like to evaluate to see how a player interacts with the surroundings and not necessarily watch a specific drill. I want to see how he interacts with his teammates. I think you can get a real good evaluation by just watching those things."