Matt Ryan ready for his all important third NFL season

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Looking back on the early careers of some of the top quarterbacks in NFL history, there is no common thread as to exactly when they blossomed into true stars.

After guiding the Falcons to a playoff berth as a rookie and then to their first back-to-back winning seasons, quarterback Matt Ryan is set to enter his third season. Where he stands in his development as a player is difficult to compute against history.

Back in the 1970s, Terry Bradshaw guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to an 11-3 regular season record in his third season. He would go on to lead them to four Super Bowl titles, the first coming in his fifth season.

In the 1980s, Joe Montana didn't even become a regular for the San Francisco 49ers until his third year in the league. He led the 49ers to a 13-3 regular-season record in 1981 after starting just eight games over his first two seasons.

In his third season, Montana completed 63.7 percent of his passes, had 19 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions and led the  49ers to victory in Super Bowl XVI over the Cincinnati Bengals. He went on to win three more Super Bowls and was a three-time Super Bowl MVP.

Also in the 80s, Miami's Dan Marino went 14-2 in 1984, his second season in the league. He passed for a staggering 5,084 yards, 48 touchdowns and 17 interceptions that year and took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl. He would never eclipse those numbers and never returned to the championship game.

In the 1990s, Brett Favre, after being shipped out of Atlanta following one season, went 9-7 as a starter in his third season in Green Bay. He completed 60.9 percent of his passes in 1993. He did throw 24 interceptions as he leaned heavily on wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, who had 112 receptions. Not until 1996, when Favre was 27 in his fifth year as a starter, did the Packers reach the Super Bowl.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, widely considered the current top two quarterbacks in the league, made big jumps in their second seasons. Between them, they have six Super Bowl appearances and four rings.

After going 3-13 as a rookie, Manning led the Colts to a 13-3 mark in his second season. They then went 6-10 in 2001, his fourth season. Beside Manning's first and fourth years , the Colts have won at least 10 games per season with him under center.

Brady went 11-3 as a starter in his second-year in the league. In his third season, he went 9-7. He completed 62.1 percent of his passes, threw 28 touchdowns and had just 12 interceptions. In his fourth season, the Patriots won the title.

Over his firs two years, Ryan has thrown for 6,356 yards with a 59.7 percent completion average. He has thrown for 38 touchdowns with 25 interceptions. In 30 career starts, the Falcons have gone 20-10.

"It's hard to compare different quarterbacks because they are in different divisions, different teams, the respective teams have different strengths and different systems also," said Bill Musgrave, the Falcons assistant head coach/quarterbacks.

While Ryan started as a rookie, some of the league's other top quarterbacks did an apprenticeship. San Diego's Philip Rivers waited behind Drew Brees for two seasons and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers watched Brett Favre for three seasons.

When Rivers took over the Chargers in his third season, he led them to a 14-2 regular season mark. He completed 61.7 percent of his passes, threw 22 touchdowns and had just nine interceptions. In two seasons as a starter, Rodgers has 17-15 regular season record and lost a head-to-head battle to Ryan and the Falcons in 2008.

So what does this all mean for Ryan?

If the Falcons are going to be a perennial-playoff contender, a stated goal of the organization, then Ryan should begin moving toward the elite group of quarterbacks. The Falcons can't go anywhere without him.

"To be a Super Bowl contender, you have to have great quarterback play," said Tony Dungy, who coached Manning and is now an analyst for NBC.

Ryan has a host of his supporters.

"I think he knows what he’s doing now," NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders said. "He started off with a great rookie season. Last year was OK. This year, I think he’s going to be fine."

New England coach Bill Belichick got to see Ryan up-close when the Falcons played the Patriots last season and in training camp when they visited for two practices on Aug. 17. He favorably compared Ryan to Brees.

"The similarity is that they are pretty good," Belichick said. "(Brees and Ryan) are as good as anybody in this league."

Sirius NFL radio analyst Gil Brandt is also high on Ryan.

"Ryan has a chance to be a Super Bowl quarterback," Brandt said.

The Falcons are confident that Ryan, 25, is headed in the right direction.

"Matt is a life-long learner," Musgrave said. "He learns from each practice and from each game. He's real good at learning from both his triumphs and his mistakes. That's why he is going to have a long, productive and successful career in this league."

He will likely play sparingly on Thursday against Jacksonville in the final exhibition and then get ready for the regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 12. For the record, he's ready for year three to get started.

"I feel a lot more comfortable within our offense, understanding our offense, understanding the NFL a little bit better than I did the first two years," Ryan said. "Understanding the grind of the season and what to expect at different points of the year. What to worry about. What not to worry about. I think that all of those things will probably help."