As Matt Ryan’s pay goes up, so will expectations

Everything has told the Falcons that this is the right investment, the safe investment. Matt Ryan is a winner. He’s their leader. His image is Disney, his smile is Mayberry. He works hard, studies long hours and is admired by teammates. Also, he loves dogs.

Everything has told the Falcons — go ahead, do it. They slid a five-year, $103.75 million contract across the table. They guaranteed $59 million overall and will pay out $63 million in the first three seasons. They’ll give Ryan an annual average salary ($20.75 million) that exceeds the still wet-ink deal of last year’s Super Bowl-winning quarterback (Joe Flacco, $20.1 million) and sits just behind another Super Bowl winner (Aaron Rodgers, $22 million).

They took the leap. The Falcons gave Ryan one of the richest deals in NFL history. A franchise doesn’t do that without taking some risk because now Ryan has to prove he belongs in that company.

This isn’t just about the fact the Falcons were burned the last time they extended themselves financially to this extent. (Michael Vick’s 10 years, $130 million in December 2004. And 10 years for $130 million was a big money back then.) This is because Ryan now will be paid like guys with rings.

The only other quarterbacks in his economic stratosphere all have won Super Bowls: Rodgers, Flacco, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. He is making more than Tom Brady (three Super Bowls), Eli Manning (two) and Ben Roethlisberger (two).

Ryan is 56-22 in the regular season. He has won more games than any other quarterback after five seasons. His winning percentage of .718 from 2008-12 is exceeded only by Brady (50-15, .769) and Peyton Manning (49-15, .766). But he is 1-4 in the postseason.

What’s the more accurate measuring stick going forward?

“Normally I’m sure there would be trepidation,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said after Thursday’s news conference. “But in this case we truly believe Matt is the total package for us — the importance of him being our team’s best leader, the way he operates off the field, the way he spins the ball and operates on the field. So there’s no trepidation. It’s big money, but we’re comfortable.”

Dimitroff said the decision to give Ryan a deal of this size “isn’t just about him winning a playoff game. It was about how he continued to grow and operate and evolve in this league.”

Ryan said if the money causes expectations to rise externally, that’s not the case with him. “My goal and my mindset has been the same since 2008,” he said. “It’s about winning a championship and getting rings.”

They made the right decision five years ago. Where would the Falcons have been had they drafted LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, the favorite of seemingly most fans and media?

Dorsey, taken fifth overall by Kansas City, has four sacks in five years and has been a bust, relative to his draft position. Ryan has been picked for two Pro Bowls and elevated a franchise stuck in the post-Vick, post-Bobby Petrino muck.

Dimitroff: “Suffice to say, I’m glad we didn’t go defensive tackle.”

If Dorsey seemed like the safer choice, it was because so many feared another disastrous ending at quarterback. Which brings us to Vick, and the last time they were at this point.

The Falcons took a similar financial leap nine years ago. They had watched Vick, their wonderful new quarterback turn around a franchise, engineer a playoff upset in Green Bay and sell out stadiums and racks of jerseys.

The owner, Arthur Blank, slid the $130 million contract across the table. Almost everybody gulped. But Blank, reflecting the giddiness in the organization at the time, didn’t blink. He told a story about a conversation he had with Vick the previous summer.

“I said, ‘Michael, you understand that the only way you’ll leave Atlanta will be in a box,’” Blank recalled then. “And I said, ‘Coming from New York, you understand what I’m talking about.’”

And everybody laughed. Nobody figured anything could go wrong, certainly nothing along the lines of barking dogs and black-painted sheds behind the beautiful home on Moonlight Road in Surry County, Va. Vick didn’t leave Atlanta in a box, but he did leave in handcuffs.

With Ryan nearing the end of his contract, Blank didn’t blink again. He couldn’t. If he paid over market value for Ryan, it wasn’t by much. But there is an obvious expectation level built into $59 million guarantees and $20.75 million package averages.

At one point Thursday, Blank said,“I’ve said many times, I’m not going to rest really well until we win rings.”

That should be the attitude of most, especially now.