Glenn Thomas was young in 2008, just 31 and in his first season as an offensive assistant for the Atlanta Falcons, and young football coaches in the NFL work all the time. They arrive before dawn and stay until after sunset. They want to work as much as they can, because the work will prove that they are eager to learn and will lead to better jobs and bigger things in their futures.
So Thomas showed up early every day, but always after the Falcons' rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, and always just in time to listen to Ryan's caustic self-critiques. For their seven years together in Atlanta - with Thomas as Ryan's quarterback coach for four of them - that pattern never changed.
"He had already watched all the film by the time I got to him," Thomas, in his first season as Temple's offensive coordinator, said in a telephone interview. "He was his own worst critic. He was very critical of himself and how he could have and should have reacted in different situations or plays that he made or missed. That's very commendable. He's got everything you'd want in an elite player. I can't say enough good things about him."
Never during Ryan's nine-year career has there been more reason to praise him than now. He enters the Falcons' game Sunday against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field - a homecoming for the Exton native and Penn Charter alumnus - as the NFL's prospective most valuable player. He leads the league in passing yards (2,980), touchdowns (23), and yards per completion (13.7) for a team that is 6-3 despite having allowed 28.8 points a game. That mark is the fifth-worst in the NFL, and it puts Ryan's productivity in startling perspective: If he were leading the Falcons to four touchdowns in an average game, they would still lose that game.
It's hard to imagine, then, anyone putting more pressure on Ryan this season than his own defensive coaches and teammates have. (The additional irony is that Atlanta's head coach, Dan Quinn, is a former defensive coordinator himself.) Nevertheless, Ryan has so far met the measure of that challenge. The Falcons are scoring 33.9 points a game, making them the NFL's No. 1 offensive team. And at 31, after eight years of seeing his star rise and fall often because of circumstances beyond him, Ryan is showing just how much patience is sometimes required before even a quarterback regarded as a franchise's cynosure reaches his peak.
That's a healthy lesson for anyone who assumes Carson Wentz will carry the Eagles to a Super Bowl, or perhaps to the top of the NFC East, anytime soon. It's unlikely to be so easy. Consider Ryan. Like Wentz, he was a top-three draft pick. Like Wentz, he started Week 1 as a rookie. He has thrown for at least 4,100 yards in each of the last five seasons and is on pace to throw for more than 5,000 this season. He has thrown more than twice as many touchdown passes (225) as he has interceptions (111).
By any measure, however one defines the term, he is a franchise quarterback, and he has arguably the NFL's best wide receiver, Julio Jones, to boot. Yet the Falcons haven't had a winning season since 2012, when Ryan led them to the NFC championship game and was one incompletion - a play on which his primary receiver ran the wrong route - away from a Super Bowl berth.
One reason for that decline was that Atlanta's defensive struggles this season are hardly new; the Falcons ranked 27th in points allowed in both 2013 and 2014. Another - and the Eagles should pay attention here, considering what they gave up to get Wentz - was that the Falcons traded five draft picks to acquire Jones, hampering their ability to replenish their talent pool. (None of the six players they drafted in 2012, for instance, is still on the roster.)
If a quarterback is judged not merely by his performance but by his team's, then the pressure that Ryan placed on himself during that fallow period appeared more an albatross than an inspiration. Last season, as Atlanta faded to an 8-8 finish after starting 6-1, Ryan threw just 21 touchdown passes, his lowest total since his rookie year, and committed 21 turnovers. As Thomas said, he's his own worst critic.
"Absolutely, you put a certain standard for yourself out there, and there's a certain expectation of what you're capable of doing, and winning games is first and foremost for that standard," Ryan said Wednesday. "It's hard to do. It's hard to win a game in this league - that's for sure. But I definitely put a high standard out there for myself and expect myself to play really well."
In March, Ryan organized a weeklong, players-only passing camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Twenty- seven Falcons attended, including Jones and other skill-position players, and Ryan set himself to improving his balance, his footwork, and his throwing mechanics. Now in their second season together, he and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan revised the playbook to diversify Ryan's options and feature more deep passes, freeing him to use his mind and instincts without overthinking.
"I don't know if he's more relaxed, but I would say he has a really confident feel to him," Quinn said. "When you see him on the sideline, he's just ready to go into that mode of attack."
Matt Ryan has been good for a long time, but it took him a long time to be this good. It took those early mornings in 2008, when a young assistant coach raced his younger quarterback to the film room and couldn't beat him. Now it might turn him into an MVP and take him to a Super Bowl. Bigger and better things at last, nine years on.