Ryan looks to improve on last season

Flowery Branch — How, Matt Ryan, do you top last season?

We don’t know yet if the Falcons quarterback will reach the heights he did in 2008. As a rookie, he led the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. Ryan made the franchise’s disastrous 2007 season a distant memory in becoming the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

However, if Ryan does have similar success this season, we’ll know why.

It’s too simple to say Ryan worked hard in the offseason to build on his success. His coaches say it. His teammates say it. Even Ryan says it.

Take a look at what all that hard work entailed.

Ryan’s offseason literally began hours after the final game. The Falcons lost to Arizona on Jan. 3, and the next morning, he was at the team’s headquarters watching film of the 30-24 defeat.

By March, he was in the team’s weight room three days a week. That’s also when he began watching film. It wasn’t just his performance he was watching. He spent hours studying other quarterbacks.

“I looked at what other guys were doing, what we did, watched every game, went through it all again,” Ryan said. “I just took a look at what I did well, what I didn’t do well. I looked at what some other guys did around the league. Some concepts that we use that some other teams use around the league.”

The process continued. By the end of March, the Falcons began their offseason conditioning program, and Ryan was working out four days a week.

Minicamp and OTAs were held during the summer. It only gave Ryan something new to study.

“You get the experience of a whole offseason going against our defense and taking a look at what they do,” Ryan said. “I’m trying to take a look at what they are trying to do as a defense instead of just trying to keep your head above water with what we are doing as an offense.”

Falcons quarterbacks were given DVDs containing every throw they made during minicamp and OTAs. It was another learning opportunity.

“You can throw that in when you’re taking a flight somewhere and look at different things,” Ryan said. “It’s just trying to keep refreshing your brain on what you worked on.”

As training camp begins, Ryan’s work ethic is evident to his teammates.

“He is definitely ahead of the curve,” 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “I’m very impressed by him. All the hype means something, and you can see it. You step on the field with him, and he knows where everybody is going and he knows where to put that ball. He works hard. I think that’s indicative of what a great player is — somebody that works hard. That’s what separates guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Those guys are constantly trying to get better — on the field and off the field. That’s what Matt does.”

Ryan said his top offseason priority was to improve his conditioning and strength. He then recited a list of desired mental improvements — decision making, understanding the offense, defensive recognition — until his voice trailed off. It’s quite a list.

“I know Matt has stated in the press before about what good quarterbacks have in common, and that’s being good decision makers and they are very accurate throwing the ball,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “To be a great quarterback in this league, those are the two areas that they really have to be efficient at.”

Still, Ryan won’t reflect on the accomplishments of last season. He can’t. He hasn’t gotten over that playoff loss.

“Just because of the way we lost,” Ryan said. “We were in the playoffs and felt we could do more. It left a sour taste in your mouth regardless of what you do personally. It was a good first year. I’m not naïve. There is no question about it that it was a good first year and a lot of fun to be a part of. But I think having had an opportunity to make a run at the playoffs and not getting it done was frustrating. I want to get back there and do everything to prepare and hopefully do better than we did last time.”

There is always more work to be done.