Commentary

Purely a business trip for Ryan

Former BC quarterback has winning on his mind vs. Pats in return to stomping grounds

Updated: September 23, 2009, 5:56 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH -- Preparing to face his former Boston College teammate Matt Ryan on Sunday, Patriots rookie defensive lineman Ron Brace would have sent him a text message by now.

But the last one never went through.

"He changed his number," Brace said. "Had to."

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIMatt Ryan, who has quarterbacked the Falcons to a 2-0 start, targeted decision-making and accuracy as areas to improve upon last offseason.

Brace fully understands why based on Ryan's impressive entry into the NFL, his star rising dramatically in such short time.

Now Ryan returns to where his pro career launched, playing his first NFL game in his old backyard when the Falcons visit the Patriots.

"It will be great to get back there," Ryan said Wednesday on a conference call with New England reporters. "It's a part of the country that I love. I have a special spot in my heart up there from my days at BC, so I'll be excited to get back and I know there will be people at the games who will be good to see.

"But with that said, we're going up there to play this football game and win this football game. There will be chances during the offseason to get back and enjoy the Boston area. Right now, we're trying to go up there and take care of our business."

Only 18 months ago, Ryan's primary business was to impress NFL scouts and coaches at BC's pro day.

It's easy to forget now, but he wasn't considered a slam-dunk top draft choice at the time, some pointing to his 19 interceptions as a senior as one reason he wasn't worthy of being a top selection. The Falcons pounced on him third overall (think the Dolphins and Rams want a do-over?) and Ryan has decisively validated their faith in him.

Second-year coach Mike Smith said it was around the second preseason game in 2008 that the even-keeled Ryan began to emerge. At times over the course of Ryan's rookie season, Smith remembered looking toward assistant coaches Mike Mularkey and Bill Musgrave and asking, "Man, did he really just make that throw?"

Now in his second season, Ryan has operated with a higher comfort level and teammates view him differently. He is a team captain.

"It's a little different," Ryan said of his elevated status in the locker room. "Any time you've been around a situation for longer, you become more comfortable with your role on the team. That comes with playing the position; you have to take on some leadership qualities [but] I definitely feel more comfortable with it this year."

Part of what makes Ryan easy to follow is his work ethic.

After winning offensive rookie of the year honors, he targeted accuracy and decision-making as areas to improve upon, so he spent the offseason studying the footwork of quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

The early results have been impressive as he's completing 68.3 percent of his passes through two games, home wins over Miami and Carolina. Ryan completed 61.1 percent over the 2008 season.

Smith points to a second-quarter throw Sunday against the Panthers as one example of Ryan's progress in those areas. On third-and-7 from the Carolina 19, Ryan fired a pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez for a 9-yard completion.

"Thrown low and outside, there was really good coverage, and he threw away from the defender where either [Gonzalez] was going to get it or no one was," Smith said.

As part of devising a game plan for Sunday's game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with Ryan's accuracy and decision-making.

[+] EnlargeRyan
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireMatt Ryan says he has "a special spot in my heart up there from my days at BC", but Sunday the only thing he will be focused on is beating the Patriots.

"He knows where to go with the ball and can put it on the money," Belichick said. "He has a lot of downfield throws, too. It's not like he's throwing a lot of screen passes and checkdowns. He can get it down the field. He knows when to fire it, knows when to put a touch on it. He's really impressive."

Sunday will mark Ryan's third trip to the area since joining the Falcons. During the Falcons' bye week last year, he returned for a Boston College game, and later came back for a weekend over the winter.

This trip will be different. While he looks forward to catching up with old friends, he's treating it as strictly business.

That doesn't surprise Brace, his former teammate.

"Seems like he's the same old Matt," Brace said. "He's out there making plays."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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