Ryan has never demanded that anyone follow him. From the moment he walked into the brick building in Flowery Branch, he has asked, “What can I do to help?” (First thing was to buy a new stereo system for the locker room.) Over time — a very short time, as it turned out — others fell in line. Drafted to be a franchise quarterback, he became the franchise. He has never been oblivious as to his role as a Falcon, but he has never felt the need to mention it. Some truths are self-evident.
Yes, he's indulged by management, which has moved mountains to ensure that he has the right players and coaches around him. (When you have a franchise quarterback, that's what a franchise does.) His contract is for $150 million over five years, which can make a guy a target of jealousy. But let's note this: The next teammate, or ex-teammate, to criticize Ryan — or suggest he's overpaid — will be the first.
Also: The next adverse headline involving Ryan — apart from the occasional bad game/goofball interception — will be the first. We in the media cringe at how anodyne a Ryan media session can be, but there’s reason for that. He has never criticized, not even obliquely, a teammate or a coach. Remember the snit Antonio Brown had when Ben Roethlisberger suggested he could have run a different route?” That never happens here. If indeed there’s a hint of on-field miscommunication, Ryan invariably says something like, “It’s my job to make sure we’re on the same page.” That mightn’t sound like a big deal. Over a dozen years, it’s huge.
A white man stepping forward to address this charged moment carries the risk of backlash. (Ask Drew Brees, the NFC South quarterback to whom Ryan sometimes is adversely compared.) Ryan stepped forward with $500K. From Tuesday’s media session: “I believe this is the right thing to do. I stand with my teammates and my friends who have gone through things I haven’t gone through.”
And: “Just trying to pull my weight, as so many other people are.”
This isn’t to proclaim Matthew Thomas Ryan a saint, though he’s named after two. Sometimes he cusses. Sometimes he’ll yell at an erring teammate. But he has had the grace and the savvy to walk a fine line: As the multimillionaire quarterback, he’s expected to be the team’s focal point, but NFL rosters include a majority of African-Americans. It helps that he has, from Game 1 of Year 1, been a really good player. It helps that he listens to those around him. He has heard enough teammates speak of how they’ve been treated by the police to know that life as a black American isn’t the same as for a white one.
About here, maybe you’re saying: Why give Ryan credit for being a good person? Shouldn’t we all strive to be good people? The answer is yes, but some strive harder, and some have a taller pulpit. Would the rookie Ryan have taken such a stand? Maybe not. Did the veteran Ryan take such a stand when Colin Kaepernick — who beat Ryan’s Falcons in an NFC Championship game — began taking a knee? No. This time he did.
No, he hasn’t won a Super Bowl. (Led one by 25 points, though.) No, he’s not quite Tom Brady. (Threw for 44 more yards per game than Brady did last season, though.) Ryan is, however, a former MVP and a future Hall of Famer, and if he’s not the greatest player in Falcons annals, he’s not far off. He grew up in Philly and went to school in Boston, and now he has a reason to feel proud to be an Atlantan. I’d say he’s pulling his weight.