Before his 163-game streak was snapped, the last time Matt Ryan missed an NFL game was during the first year of Barack Obama’s first term as president.
He started every Falcons’ game after missing games Dec. 6 and Dec. 13 in 2009 with a turf-toe injury until the game against Seattle on Oct. 27. The string included 154 regular-season games and nine playoff encounters, including Super Bowl LI.
With the Falcons (1-7) coming off a bye week and looking to turnaround their season, Ryan is set to return to action against the Saints (7-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Superdome.
“It’s obviously not fun when you’re not able to go, but I’ve been fortunate, and I’ve been lucky throughout my career to be able to be durable and stay on the field,” Ryan said. “I work hard at that.”
Ryan suffered an ankle sprain after he was sacked by Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald on Oct. 20. He rehabbed hard and tried to play against the Seahawks, but was declared out of the game less than 24 hours before kickoff.
“Sometimes you can’t go,” Ryan said. “That’s part of this business. You just have to deal with it and focus on whatever the challenge is that you’re going through at that point of just working on trying to get better. That’s more of where my mind goes in those types of situations.”
In 2009, Chris Redman started in Ryan’s place against the Eagles and Saints, both Falcons losses. Ryan returned and guided the Falcons to three consecutive wins to reach 9-7 and post the franchise’s first back-to-back winning seasons.
“I feel like for one, it comes down to putting the time in,” Ryan said about staying healthy. “It takes time to take care of your body and all of the things that you need to do to be able to play week-in and week-out.”
Ryan approaches wellness and health as an offseason project, too.
“That is something from when the season ends all the way into the offseason and into the regular season – it’s a full-time commitment,” Ryan said.
“I also think you have got to be lucky, too. You have to avoid the random things that happen in this game. I have been fortunate to avoid some of those things – it just happened a couple of weeks ago that I wasn’t able to do.”
The Falcons know that protecting Ryan is their key to success. When Ryan’s pass protection has been firm, the Falcons go to the playoffs. In the seasons when the line play has been shaky, they have not been able to contend for a playoff berth.
The Falcons committed more than $80 million in the offseason with the hopes of making sure the line was stout. But injuries to Chris Lindstrom, Jamon Brown, James Carpenter and Alex Mack have hurt the continuity and effectiveness of the group.
Ryan returned to practice Wednesday and was running gingerly during the open media portion of practice.
“I feel good,” Ryan said. “I’m feeling a little bit better every day. That’s what you do when you have something like this, you just try and focus on daily improvement and try to get back to yourself as fast as possible. I’m feeling pretty good.”
In his first game back in 2009, Ryan led the Falcons to a 10-7 win over the New York Jets, who went to the playoffs that season. He followed that game with a win over the Bills and a thrilling win against Tampa Bay, when running back Jason Snelling rushed for 147 yards.
More than a decade later and with a new president in office, the Falcons need Ryan to have another splashy return to action.
“I felt good with the work we got in,” Ryan said. “We’ve just got to focus on trying to continue to improve.”
Ryan and the Falcons’ offense need a little help from the defense. The Falcons have trailed by double-digits at halftime in six of their eight games. The Falcons have been outscored 144-50 in the first halves of their games.
The offense has been statistically productive coming out of those holes, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the unit’s points output doesn’t match the yards.
Ryan is trying to lead the team in his way.
“I think, like in all things, you have to practice it. For us, that is in meetings and on the practice field and in walk-throughs,” Ryan said. “You have to practice being focused and locked in. That is my message over and over.”
The team needs to become more consistent.
“It’s a daily thing, and when you do it over and over, it becomes a habit,” Ryan said. “When you have good habits you produce good things. To me, it has to become habitual for us, and we have to do a great job of focusing and getting locked in day-in and day-out.”
Ryan doesn’t expect to have a setback from the injury.
“That’s the way I approach it every week, even the week against Seattle,” Ryan said. “You have to have the mindset you’re going to play and you’re ready to go.”
Ryan, holder of 21 franchise passing records, knows a victory over the Saints could boost morale and help to get some things pointed in a different direction.
“We have got to find a way to get it done,” Ryan said. “We can’t worry about how the season is going to end or what we are going to do in the seven games behind this one. We have to just focus on taking care of this business.
“I always think we need a win. Especially when you go against a good football team on the road and in a tough environment. That always creates momentum for your team.”
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