CHARLOTTE -- In the past, the quarterback savior for the Atlanta Falcons was a trumpet blare, a headline, something you had to see.
Now, he's just a guy you quietly nod and acknowledge -- and plan for now and in the years to come.
Perhaps the ultimate compliment for Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan is the look on Carolina counterpart Jake Delhomme's face when asked about him. Delhomme nods, squarely and firmly, and says simply: "He's going to be really good."
The best news the Falcons can hear is that their next face of the franchise is not only playing well, but by the book. It's taken them two years to uncover themselves from the Michael Vick embarrassment, but now they're in the hands of a guy who gets compared to Delhomme sometimes because of his immaculate leadership qualities.
"We thought the world of him ourselves," coach John Fox said Wednesday. "We just didn't think he was going to get to (draft pick) 13, and he didn't. He was an impressive guy. He has a lot of the intangibles I think that sometimes people miss the boat on.
"In Atlanta's case, which I'm not real happy about - I'd like to see him somewhere other than our division. That's a compliment -- he's done very well."
Ryan's early success is almost preternatural, showing a calm you rarely get with any quarterback, regardless of age. That's good, because there's pressure on him beyond the field. Since the last big thing in Atlanta turned out to be a convicted felon, there's a burden on Ryan that supersedes wins and losses.
Asked if that kind of attention was daunting, you could almost hear Ryan shrugging over a conference call line.
"I don't think so," he replied. "The biggest thing for me and what my focus has been since I have come down here is to do everything that I can to play my best week in and week out. With all the other stuff that goes with that, I haven't worried about it. I've tried to just focus on controlling the things that I can and that's working hard and studying hard during the week and doing everything I can to be prepared for each game week in and week out."
If his response sounds a little programmed, there's a chance it was. Falcons coach Mike Smith, himself a rookie at his job, said they put a plan in place early on for Ryan, so he wouldn't get overwhelmed by media or outside distractions. But all Ryan's shown so far is that he's ready for whatever challenge is in front of him, almost to a too-good-to-be-true degree.
"Matt, through the first 10 games, has played very efficiently for a rookie," Smith said. "Any rookie in this league, regardless of their position, is going to have some ups and downs. I think Matt has had more ups than downs, but when he's had things not go his way or not go our way, we have learned from them.
"I talk about this being a process for our football team, it's a process for Matt as well."
Make no mistake, the Falcons were careful to insure their investment -- the third overall pick's working on a six-year, $72 million contract -- by putting pieces in place around him. They signed big-ticket free agent running back Michael Turner and have the league's second-ranked running game -- to provide him a set of training wheels.
But he's shown he can make plays, too. He's thrown 11 touchdowns and just six interceptions, has a respectable 87.8 rating, and is eighth in the league in yards per pass attempt. That shows he's got the confidence to move the ball downfield, while many teams try to baby their rookies along.
Along with Baltimore's Joe Flacco, he's one of the rare rookies given the keys from the first day.
Since 1998, only seven first-year quarterbacks have started on opening day. Most haven't had his kind of success, as Ryan Leaf, Chris Weinke, David Carr and Kyle Boller might tell you. Even Peyton Manning, the poster boy from drafting a franchise quarterback, was a rough 3-13 his rookie season, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns.
Not Ryan. He's the first rookie starter since 1970 to start his first six games and win at least four. After losing his first home game last week (when a dropped pass might have made him a winner), the only question he has to answer at this point is whether he hits the wall that first-year players usually find when they're used to a season ending, and there are six games left to play.
In his first four home games, he had a passer rating over 115.0 each time. Last week against Denver, hardly a defensive juggernaut, he was uncharacteristically off-target, with a 71.5 rating.
That's going to have defenses coming after him down the stretch, hoping to get in his head.
"No, he's still a rookie," Panthers linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "You ask them I'm sure they're still treating him like a rookie. He's definitely ahead of the curve, and not only the rookie class but just in general. He looks real comfortable in there and he's getting comfortable with the speed of the game and how defenses are going to try to mess with him to get him to make mistakes.
"And for the most part he's done real good. Especially for a rookie. Hopefully we can get him rattled a little bit and get him on the ground."
Of course, rattling Ryan might be the toughest thing of all.
He was asked Wednesday if he ever thought about the benefit of easing into the pro ranks, of watching for a year to avoid the pitfalls some rookies have endured.
"I'm sure there are certainly different ways of learning about how to play quarterback in this league, but I haven't thought about it," he replied. "I have been all about dealing with the situation that I am in and that was playing from the first game of this year.
"I am sure that guys have done it and learned that way. To be honest with you, I haven't even really considered it."
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