Heading into the NFL’s regular season, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is in an unfamiliar place. He is set to enter his seventh season, but has no experience or reference point to help him with his current plight.
During his tenure, Ryan has never had to lead the Falcons back from a losing season. He will take his first steps on this new journey when the Falcons face the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“As a quarterback, you certainly feel responsible for doing your part,” Ryan said. “It’s a production-based league, and you’ve got to produce and play well.”
Since he was selected with third pick of the 2008 draft, Ryan has produced a string of five consecutive winning seasons, four trips to the playoffs and one to the NFC Championship game.
In the process, he was re-written the team’s record book and holds 13 franchise records. With three more touchdown passes, he’ll move past Steve Bartkowski (1975-85) as the all-team leader, with 155.
But that success occurred in the past and won’t directly benefit Ryan’s attempts to revive the team, which was beset with injuries and poor play in the trenches — and a lack of toughness, according to its owner — on its way to a 4-12 record last season.
Ryan believes the Falcons can return to their winning ways in 2014.
“I’m feeling good about a lot of things,” Ryan said. “I like where the offensive line is at. I think those guys had a really productive training camp.”
Ryan has been a stickler for details this offseason and has no issues with becoming the unquestioned leader of the team.
“Nobody has higher expectations for Matt than he puts on himself,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Matt is extremely hard on himself. Extremely dedicated. My expectation is that he plays up to his capabilities and continues to be the excellent leader of our team. If he does those things, we’ll be in every game.”
Rookie Jake Matthews, who will begin his career at left tackle, has been impressed with Ryan’s leadership.
“I could tell from (the first day) that he was an incredible leader,” said Matthews, who was slated to start at right tackle before Sam Baker’s season-ending knee injury. “When he’s out there giving plays and stuff, everyone listens. He’s the guy that everyone follows all of the time. I’m real proud to block for a guy like that.”
Ryan has made sure that Matthews and other newcomers, such as wide receiver Devin Hester and running back Devonta Freeman, learn the nuances of the offense.
“Matt does a good job of making sure that we’re on the same page and stuff,” Matthews said. “Obviously, as a rookie, I’m just going to try to know my job and not worry about the bigger stuff.”
Right guard Jon Asamoah, who signed as a free agent after playing four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, is another Ryan convert.
“It’s great playing with a guy like that,” Asamoah said. “It makes everything else easier. It makes communicating on the line easier. if there are any gray areas we knock it out. It just makes everything flow that much better.”
Wide receiver Julio Jones, who’s returning from a broken foot, has been a Ryan backer since he took Jones under his wings shortly after the 2011 draft. He’s comfortable with Ryan leading the way after such a tumultuous season.
“Matt is going to be Matt,” Jones said. “He’s the leader of the team. When he needs to speak up, he speaks up. When he says something, obviously we are doing something wrong. We get back on track.”
Ryan was one of the key starters who survived last season and made all 16 starts. He doesn’t want to revisit those tough times of rare days off for “Victory Monday” or watching the training room packed with players receiving treatment.
“You learn something every season,” Ryan said.