Ex-Falcons coach Mike Smith on Matt Ryan: ‘The best and the greatest’

Then-Falcons coach Mike Smith talks to quarterback Matt Ryan during minicamp in June 2013. Smith, the coach with the most wins in Falcons history, is an ardent supporter of Ryan, who was traded Monday for a third-round pick. (JOHNNY CRAWFORD / JCRAWFORD@AJC.COM)

Combined ShapeCaption
Then-Falcons coach Mike Smith talks to quarterback Matt Ryan during minicamp in June 2013. Smith, the coach with the most wins in Falcons history, is an ardent supporter of Ryan, who was traded Monday for a third-round pick. (JOHNNY CRAWFORD / JCRAWFORD@AJC.COM)

Mike Smith, the coach with the most wins in Falcons history, is an ardent supporter of quarterback Matt Ryan, who was traded Monday for a third-round pick.

“Absolutely, best player, best teammate and best leader in the history of the Atlanta Falcons,” Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Falcons

Smith believes that when Ryan is done, he’s headed to Canton, Ohio.

“Absolutely, I believe that he’ll be a member of the Hall of Fame,” Smith said.

The Falcons drafted Ryan third overall in the 2008 draft. They knew early on that he would be a special player. Wide receiver Brian Finneran was battling back from being off for two seasons from ACL surgeries back then.

“To get on the field in training camp, when I started ramping it up and getting on the field, to see his demeanor inside the huddle in training camp when everybody was padded and kind of live bullets were going,” Finneran said. “Just super impressive as a rookie quarterback to handle a huddle and grown men like he did. It was early on.”

“Absolutely, best player, best teammate and best leader in the history of the Atlanta Falcons."

- former Falcons coach Mike Smith, on quarterback Matt Ryan

Ryan’s first pass in the NFL went for a 62-yard touchdown pass on a skinny post against the Detroit Lions’ Cover 4 coverage to Michael Jenkins.

“I remember like it was yesterday,” Smith said during an appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio with Solomon Wilcots and Mark Dominik on Tuesday. “I can remember telling (offensive coordinator) Mike Mularkey when they lined up and we saw the coverage that they were in, I said, ‘This is going to be a good one, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘Yep!’”

Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were hired after the 2007 season. With Michael Vick mired in a federal dogfighting trial and coach Bobby Petrino leaving after 13 games, they inherited a murky situation.

The Falcons had a chance to turn things around with the third overall pick in the draft. They heavily scouted the quarterbacks and thought Ryan was superior to Joe Flacco and Chad Henne.

“Thomas (was) very detailed in terms of the process that we went through,” Smith said. “It started by watching tape. We watched every throw that Matt Ryan threw at Boston College. There were a lot of people that had some concerns about his arm strength and his completion percentage.”

The Falcons didn’t think arm strength was a big issue and saw good throws when they watched Ryan on film.

“Matt wasn’t playing with the best group of wide receivers at Boston College,” Smith said. “There were a lot of balls that were perfectly thrown that weren’t necessarily always caught. When we watched his entire career there at Boston College, you got an opportunity to really see how accurate of a passer he was. That’s the thing I remember about the process in terms of the video.”

Ryan also was impressive during the interview process.

“Why would you come here? It's a rebuild for two years whether it's Matt Ryan or Deshaun Watson."

- former Falcons receiver Brian Finneran

“I can remember sitting there in a restaurant in Indianapolis, Matt and I, at the combine having a conversation,” Smith said. “We really knew early on that if he was there on the board when we picked, we were going to take.”

The Dolphins selected Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long No. 1 overall, and the Rams selected Virginia defensive end Chris Long second. The Falcons then snapped up Ryan, and he guided them to the playoffs as a rookie, finishing the regular season with an 11-5 record.

“Well, it was a team effort,” Smith said. “It started with the leadership. Thomas Dimitroff was the general manager. He did a great job of getting players. We just tried to build a team. The coaching staff, our first coaching staff, with Mike Mularkey as the offensive coordinator and Terry Robiskie as the wide receivers coach, those guys were veterans and had a good feel for what players could and could not do.”

The Falcons ran the ball with Michael Turner, who signed in free agency.

“We didn’t want it all to be on Matt Ryan,” Smith said. “We found out real quickly that Matt could take a team and put it on his back and lead it to a lot of wins.”

He led the Falcons to a victory over the Bears with 11 seconds to play in his sixth NFL start.

“One thing about Matt was his competitiveness,” Smith said. “He’s one tough guy. He’s been hit a lot throughout his career, but he always got up. I think he only missed three games. He had a turf toe and missed two games with us in his second season ,and I think he missed one other time in his entire career there in Atlanta.”

The mood from training camp carried into that first season.

“I don’t know what I thought about that team; I think we were a bunch of try-hard guys,” Finneran said. “We had a really fun offensive line with guys in front of Matt. I think having Todd McClure there as a veteran center really helped Matt early on in his career. Then, obviously, Michael Turner played a huge role.

“He was able to grow and develop as opposed to putting too much on his shoulders right away. Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie did a great job utilizing the run game.”

Finneran is the co-host of the popular “The Locker Room” show on The Fan. He’s heard from the fans, who have a lot of questions.

“Mostly happy for Matt that he has a chance to do something late in his career with a good football team,” Finneran said about the fans’ mood. “A little angry with the way it was handled on his way out. Frustrated, I guess. Just a curious, curious move.”

The Falcons’ pursuit of Deshaun Watson has received mixed reviews.

“I really had a hard time believing that Deshaun Watson was really going to be able to come here and play football or wanted to,” Finneran said. “Why would you come here? It’s a rebuild for two years whether it’s Matt Ryan or Deshaun Watson.

“So, I just never really understood it. I kept trying to figure it out. I couldn’t figure it out. But the fans have been a little frustrated and happy for Matt. I think the fact that we’ve been relatively bad the last few years and not winning games makes it an easier transition, knowing that at some point we had to start over. Now, that point was (Monday).”

The Bow Tie Chronicles