Commentary

Resist temptation to get pass-happy

Even with addition of great TE Gonzalez, Atlanta's QB Ryan will grow with ground game

Originally Published: July 16, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One of the stories that fascinated me over the past few weeks involved new Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. It was reported accurately that Gonzalez, a potential Hall of Famer who's made a reputation with his hands and ability to get open, would be doing more blocking than catching in Atlanta.

At first, that didn't make a lot of sense. Gonzalez had 916 catches for 10,940 yards in 12 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Most would think his new partnership with Matt Ryan would put him over 1,000 catches easily this season. After all, Gonzalez caught 99 and 96 passes in one of the worst quarterbacking situations in the league over the past two seasons.

As for Ryan, I haven't been this excited about a quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning came into the league in 1998. Ryan has it all. He can make all the throws, he has a fourth-quarter presence similar to Manning or Tom Brady's, and he's a student of the game. In the first quarter of last season, Ryan had progressed enough he was able to get to his fourth read and complete passes.

Ryan has the ability to go into a no-huddle, three-receiver set with Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas and still feature Gonzalez. With those types of weapons, you'd think Ryan would throw 40 passes a game and the Falcons would score 30 points each Sunday. The Falcons could be the eastern version of the New Orleans Saints.

That won't happen, and it's probably wise to put the yellow light on in Ryan's second season. With the likes of 2008 breakout running back Michael Turner leading the ground game, the Falcons still want to be a run-first team

"That's what this football team is all about," head coach Mike Smith said. "We're not going to change what we do on offense. We are just going to have another option to go to. At the core, we're going to run the football. That's what we believe in."

In 2008, the Falcons averaged 35 rushing attempts per game. If they establish themselves at the line of scrimmage, it's not out of the question they could average 37 attempts per game. The Baltimore Ravens made the playoffs with a 37-carries-per-game offense. As a rookie, Ryan was asked to throw an average of only 27 passes a game. He completed an average of 16.5 passes.

And don't forget about backup running back Jerious Norwood, perhaps the fastest player on the team. Last season Norwood caught 36 passes and has 50-catch potential. Averaging only 16.5 completions a game for five quality targets -- White, Jenkins, Douglas, Gonzalez and Norwood -- might not keep everyone occupied. But as long as the Falcons win, this group should be happy.

"We feel like you've got to control the line of scrimmage," Smith said. "Sure, we have another weapon in the passing game, but we like to run it more than 30 times. With Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood and our other backs, we've got a good stable of runners. Having all of that allows us to change things up each week. We're going to put game plans together each week that is not based on just one player. It's a team."

The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't unleash more of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's passing skills until his fifth season. They still prefer to run the football more than throw it, and the strategy has produced two Super Bowl titles for the Steelers.

Ryan proved last season he doesn't need to be babied. Each day in practice, Smith sees Ryan's rapid development and knows he could spread the field with receivers and throw the ball all day. The Falcons are so loaded with offensive talent, though, that they can be cautious.

The plan this year is to be more efficient. If Ryan throws only 27 passes, he can try to complete 20 passes a game. Last year, the Falcons signed Turner for the backfield and Jason Elam as their kicker so they could produce field goals if drives didn't result in touchdowns. This year, a more seasoned Ryan can try to turn those three-point drives into seven-point journeys.

Elam made 29 of 31 field goals. Ryan threw 16 touchdown passes.

"Tony Gonzalez will really help us with how we use him in the red zone," offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. "He gives a defense some matchup problems. Defenses have to figure out whom they want to double. If that happens, maybe the running backs will get an advantage."

Mularkey knows he can't use Turner as much as he did last season, but that's where Norwood comes into play. Turner had 376 carries for 1,699 yards, while Norwood had only 95 rushing attempts, even though he averaged 5.1 yards per carry.

"You can't run 370 times a season," Mularkey said. "If Michael does that, he's going to wear out over time."

Even though Peyton Manning is known more for this throwing than for how he manages the running game, look what happened to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. One of the things that makes Manning's offense work so well is the stretch running play -- which Manning uses as a threat to get the play-action passing game going. So even though the Colts cut Marvin Harrison -- Manning's favorite pass-receiving target -- the Colts used a first-round pick on a running back, UConn's Donald Brown, and not a wide receiver. The Colts are coming off their worst rushing seasons.

It will be interesting to see if Ryan tries to manage games the way Manning does. The Colts have perfected the nine- or 10-possession game. While most games feature 12 to 13 possessions, Manning tries to win by executing long, time-consuming drives, which give his defense a chance to rest and be fresh. If the Colts score on five of their nine possessions, they are going to score around 27 points a game.

And don't worry about Gonzalez getting frustrated by being asked to block on a few more plays with the Falcons than he was with the Chiefs. He could have stayed in Kansas City and caught 90 passes. For two years, though, he suggested trade scenarios because he wanted to win and the Chiefs were in a rebuilding mode.

Gonzalez will get at least 60 or 70 catches, which will be fine for him. After all, he caught 916 passes in 12 Kansas City seasons, but he never won a playoff game. Teaming up with Ryan should change that stat.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer