Rather than give Matt Ryan a few games to watch from the sideline, the Falcons decided on Sunday to throw the rookie into the fire as their starter.
"Everything that you get in this game you've earned, whether it be a touchdown, a win, whatever it is," Ryan said. "In some sense, it is satisfying in that light, but trust me, there's a lot of work ahead, and I know that probably just as much as everybody around here. There's going to be some ups and downs, but you've just got to stay mentally tough and grind through it. That's where my mind-set is right now.
First-year Atlanta coach Mike Smith said the No. 3 pick in the draft outperformed Chris Redman, Joey Harrington and D.J. Shockley on the field and in the classroom. In Smith's view, there was nothing ceremonial about this announcement even though Ryan signed a six-year, $72 million contract in May.
Smith said the staff "watched every move he made" in observing Ryan's interaction with teammates and other club personnel. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and Bill Musgrave told Smith that they had watched 3,000 snaps Ryan took in mini-camps, offseason workouts, training camp, scrimmages and preseason.
Though Ryan is a rookie, Smith likes the fact that his quarterback is 23 and spent four seasons in a respected football program at Boston College.
"We feel like he's earned this opportunity to start," Smith said. "We feel like he gives us the best chance to win."
Smith, who took charge of a team that went 4-12 following Michael Vick's federal prison sentence and Bobby Petrino's abrupt resignation last year, praised Ryan's mature approach to the job.
"Matt is very astute," Smith said. "He's picked up our system. I'll have to keep repeating this, but it's a learning curve for a quarterback in this league. He's going to see some things he hasn't seen before, but I think Matt is the kind of guy who might get fooled once, but the next time it comes up, he's going to be able to handle it. I really anticipate that we won't see the gaffes that a lot of people think."
Ryan will play the first series or two of the preseason finale Thursday at Baltimore. His performance in a 17-3 exhibition victory last week against Tennessee carried some weight, too, after Ryan completed 15 of 21 passes for 102 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
As the Falcons use their last exhibition game as a tuneup for the Sept. 7 season opener against Detroit, Smith indicated that Ryan will not lose the job if he struggles badly in Baltimore.
Smith seemingly gave a lot of significance to the manner in which Ryan handled an interception he threw two weeks ago that Indianapolis' Kelvin Hayden returned for a 67-yard touchdown.
"He just shook it off and said, 'I'm glad I got that one out of the way in the preseason,' " Smith said. "He's got a very good outlook about the game of football. He's got a good understanding to play quarterback in this league. He's prepared for it. He's mature beyond his years, and it'll be a great season for him to come in and be out leader."
Center Todd McClure, who has made 96 straight starts for the Falcons, believes Atlanta's running back tandem of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood will take pressure off Ryan to succeed mostly with his arm.
"He's going to have his growing pains just like anybody," McClure said. "You look at Peyton Manning in his first year. He struggled. I just hope the fans and the media give this guy a chance. He's not going to go out there and be a Hall of Famer every game this year. He's going to have some mistakes, and we're going to help him out as much as possible."
Ryan still believes his team can contend in 2008, but he also acknowledges that every young quarterback makes plenty of mistakes at the game's highest level.
"We're going to play against some really good players, and there's really good coaches on other teams as well," Ryan said. "So there's going to be good schemes and sometimes we're not going to be at our best, but you've got to learn from those mistakes and you've got to understand that they're going to happen and you've got to bounce back from them as quickly as you can."