Falcons’ greatest moment, No. 7: Matt Ryan’s first NFL pass a TD

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 7 takes the 2008 season opener, when Atlanta’s rookie signal caller Matt Ryan helped sparked an era of unmatched success in the franchise’s history.

Date: Sept. 7, 2008

Think Again: Coming off a 4–12 record, quarterback Michael Vick’s off the field scandal and head coach Bobby Petrino’s midseason resignation in 2007, the Falcons were expected to be in a rebuilding phase to open the 2008 season. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan joined first-time head coach Mike Smith and looked to restore hope within the franchise as the Lions visited the Dome for the season opener. Ryan’s first career pass attempt went for a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins and the new-look Falcons cruised to a 34-21 victory. The hot start to the regular season helped spark a surprising 11–5 record and return to the NFC Playoffs.

First Impressions: Ryan, who became the first rookie to start a season for the Falcons since Steve Bartkowski in 1975, finished with 161 passing yards and a 137.0 quarterback rating. Ryan also became the first quarterback to throw a touchdown on his first career NFL pass since October 8, 2000 when Michael Bishop completed the feat as member of the Patriots. Ryan completed his first five passes before finishing 9-of-13. This immediate success became a new standard for Ryan as he posted 56 wins in his first five seasons, the most by any quarterback in NFL history. “I was fired up,” assured Ryan after his debut. “You have to play this game with emotion.”

In 2008, Matt Ryan became the first rookie to start a season for the Falcons at quarterback since Steve Bartkowski in 1975. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Turner the Burner: While Smith and Ryan entered the sharing much of the spotlight, another Falcon had a record-setting debut against the Lions. Offseason acquisition Michael Turner set the single-game franchise record with 220 rushing yards, surpassing Gerald Riggs, who set the previous record of 202 rushing yards way back on Sept. 2, 1984. Atlanta went on to rush for a franchise-record 318 yards (7.6 yards per carry) against the Lions. “I always wondered what it would feel like to break a record,’’ said Turner after the game. “It just happened.”

Turner on Ryan: “He didn't seem like a rookie. He took control of the huddle. He made all the right calls. He was a real drill sergeant out there. He was letting everyone know he was in control.”

The Receiving End: Jenkins’ 62-yard touchdown reception was the longest of his career. The 2008 season resulted in the most productive year of Jenkins’ career as he hauled in a career-best 777 yards.

Wide receiver Michael Jenkins dashes to the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown reception - Matt Ryan's first career pass attempt. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Historically Bad: While Atlanta proved to be a surprise team in 2008, the Detroit Lions made the history books for all the wrong reasons. The Lions went 7-9 in 2007, but found themselves winless in all 16 games in 2008. The Lions became the first team since the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to end an NFL season without a win and the first team to do so in a 16-game season. 2008 was the start of a three-season stretch that saw the Lions compile a 5-47 record.

What the AJC wrote: Remember all those folks who wanted the Falcons to take Glenn Dorsey instead of Matt Ryan? Jay Clemons of SI.com says the Falcons took the right man even if Dorsey turns out to be Bob Lilly or Mean Joe Greene or Warren Sapp. And Clemons calls Ryan's touchdown to Michael Jenkins "the greatest-ever first pass by a rookie."

(Technically, Clint Longley's bomb to Drew Pearson on Thanksgiving Day 1974 was the 20th pass of the quarterback's first NFL game. But I only know that because I checked.)

Remember all those folks who said it was crazy to start a rookie quarterback? Don Banks, also of SI.com, praises the Falcons for their sagacity. So take that, Boomer Esiason!

And it was with great chagrin that local writers watched Boston College lose its home opener to Georgia Tech without Ryan. Steve Buckley of the Herald and Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe essentially wrote the same thing: That Chris Crane, who's now the Eagle quarterback, is no Matty Ice. Here's Buckley's take, and here's Shaughnessy's.

Having spent the weekend in New England, I can attest that the BC community regards Ryan as irreplaceable. (There's a life-size photo of him on the press box stairwell, for what that's worth.) And Chris Cameron, the astute BC publicist, says the thing the Falcons liked most about Ryan --- above his arm, his smarts and his toughness --- was his ability to shrug off bad games.

That attribute might not seem like a big deal the morning after a bravura NFL debut. But it will become a big deal soon enough.

Then again, it was just Detroit.

And those who follow the Lions are already in high dudgeon. Here's Mitch Albom of the Free Press ripping the local team for getting ripped by the Falcons. And here's Bob Wojnowski of the News doing the same.

You know, I've written one or two of those columns over the years while following the Falcons. It's kind of refreshing when the vitriol flows the other way.

Catch a new Top 10 play in Falcons history every week through the end of the season.

No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road

No. 9: Claude Humphrey gets call to Canton

No. 8: Playoff win in the ‘Frozen Tundra’

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