John Smallwood: Great expectations for Falcons quarterback Ryan

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan scrambles with the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Redskins. (Evan Vucci/AP)

LANDOVER, Md. - Here's how expectations have changed for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

In Sunday's 24-17 victory at the Washington Redskins that moved Atlanta to 5-0 for the first time in franchise history, Ryan completed 34 of 52 passes for 345 yards, with two touchdowns.

On Monday, the grade the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave Ryan was a C-plus.

By comparison, Michael Vick got a C-plus from the Daily News despite fumbling twice, including once on the Pittsburgh 1-yard line in a 16-14 loss.


Which sport’s fans have taken the worst hit?

That's what happens when you arrive as a player. The grading scale gets tougher.

After 67 NFL starts, Ryan, the Penn Charter product, who was selected third overall in the 2008 draft, has transitioned from "good" to "elite" quarterback.

Just past the quarter point of the 2012 season, he's playing as well as any quarterback in the league.

On Sunday, Ryan was one of six quarterbacks to pass for more than 300 yards, but he did make a mistake that resulted in "pick six" for Redskins defensive lineman Ryan Kerrigan for the game's first score.

Considering it was just the third interception Ryan had thrown all season, you'd think he might get a mulligan.

Instead, he got a C-plus.

"That was a great play by Kerrigan," Ryan conceded. "He's a very good player. He's a big guy and I needed to [have done] a better job of trying to get the ball around him.

"It was a mistake on my part but a great play on his part, too."

The interception for a touchdown likely played a big role in Ryan getting a passer rating of 89.0 - his lowest of the season.

For the season, Ryan, who is fifth all-time in passing yards at Boston College, has a 106.1 rating, trailing just San Francisco's Alex Smith (108.7).

Ryan has 13 touchdown passes, second only to New Orleans' Drew Brees (14). His 1,507 passing yards are tied for third in the NFL with Denver's Peyton Manning.

At his current pace, Ryan would set career highs for passing yards (4,822) and touchdowns (42).

After leading Atlanta to a 4-0 start, Ryan was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month for September. He is the only player in Falcons history to win player of the month three times.

"I think playing well and winning," Ryan said when asked what makes an elite quarterback. "That is what it comes down to.

"I think that is how everybody is judged.

Against Washington, Ryan drove Atlanta to the winning score in a fourth quarter for the 18th time in his career. That is the most of any quarterback since 2008.

"That is part of the deal in the NFL," Ryan said of shaking off a slow start against the Redskins. "You are going to have halves of football that aren't your best.

"It is how you respond to those situations. I thought collectively we did a great job of that."

In the early MVP conversations, Ryan is right up there. He is the new face among the usual suspects.

"You can't worry about those things," Ryan said. "I don't really worry about it too much ever, really. The biggest thing for me is to play well every week and do what we need to do to get a win."

The Falcons and Houston Texans are the only undefeated teams remaining. With a home game against Oakland on Sunday and then a bye, the Falcons likely will be 6-0 when they visit the Eagles on Oct. 28.

"It is a great start for us, it really is," Ryan said. "But at this point, you really can't worry about what is going on in the history of our organization.

"We've put ourselves right where we need to be five games into it."

You have to know the Falcons' recent history to understand why looking past the present is not something Ryan is inclined to do. Ryan won offensive rookie of the year honors while guiding Atlanta to the playoffs in 2008, but the Falcons lost in the wild-card playoffs to Arizona.

In 2010 and 2011, the Falcons made consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history, but suffered humiliating, 20-plus-point losses to the eventual Super Bowl champions (Green Bay and the New York Giants).

The Falcons already hold a commanding lead in the NFC South, with the other three teams each having won just one game. But Atlanta had a better record than the Giants last season and the Packers in 2010 and lost both playoff games.

The Falcons have their sights set on much higher goals, and having a great regular season is just the first step along the way. The goal isn't to be the best team or best quarterback in October, but to be the team and quarterback playing the best heading into the playoffs.

"I think the biggest thing for us at this point is to focus on getting better," said Ryan, who is winless in three playoff appearances. "Although our record is right where we need to be, I don't think we have played the way we are capable of playing. We certainly want to focus on improving."


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