His first pass in the NFL went for a touchdown, and things just took off from there. As a rookie, he guided the Falcons to an 11-5 record and wild-card playoff berth.
Over the next four seasons, he would guide the Falcons to three more playoff trips and two NFC South titles. Last season, Ryan posted his first playoff win and had the Falcons on the 10-yard line, poised to take a lead over the San Francisco 49ers and make the franchise’s second trip to the Super Bowl.
But this season, things have not gone according to Ryan’s plans. The Falcons were beaten by quarterbacks Drew Brees of the Saints and Tom Brady of the Patriots, both NFL stars. But they’ve also lost to rookie Jets quarterback Geno Smith and second-year Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
In the games against New Orleans and New England, Ryan, under duress from poor pass protection, couldn’t deliver on potential game-winning drives.
In the losses to Miami and the Jets, the defense failed in last-minute scoring drives. The team’s average margin of defeat is 4.75 points.
Ryan, the master of the late comeback, had to watch two of his young counterparts drive their teams for victories in the fourth quarter this season.
He believes the Falcons can pick up the rubble of their season and move forward after the bye week.
“As a leader and a veteran on this football team, you have to prepare,” Ryan said. “You have to work hard. You have to get yourself prepared to go out there on Sunday.”
While the injuries are mounting and the team is playing an unexpectedly high number of young players and backups, Ryan, ever the optimist, sees some rays of hope.
“You’ve got to stay confident,” Ryan said. “You have to trust that you’re going to make the plays when they present themselves.”
Ryan has a 34-7 record in games at the Georgia Dome. He entered the season with a 54-24 regular-season career record. So, he doesn’t have any experience with bringing an NFL team out of a 1-4 valley.
Also, Ryan doesn’t have any college experience to draw on. Boston College was 9-3, 9-3, 10-3 and 11-3 during his four seasons. Ryan couldn’t recall if he had a similar situation during his prep days at Penn Charter High in Pennsylvania.
“It’s been awhile, but that’s part of sports in general,” Ryan said. “Sometimes it goes your way, and sometimes it pulls against you. In these situations, you just have to put your head down and keep working.”
Ryan is close to tight end Tony Gonzalez, who came back to play a 17th season with the hopes of winning a Super Bowl ring.
“I think he feels the way everybody else does,” Ryan said. “We are disappointed with where we’re at this point. There is nothing that we can do to change the first five weeks. We have to keep plugging away.”