Lawyer Milloy knew the direction the question was going when he heard the words, "Does he remind you ..."
"... of Tom?" Milloy interrupted. "Definitely."
The "Tom" to whom Milloy was referring is Milloy’s former Patriots teammate, Tom Brady. The player causing the comparison? Milloy’s current Falcons teammate, quarterback Matt Ryan.
Easy now. "Remind" doesn’t mean the second coming. And Ryan has a Super Bowl to win in his first year as the starter before he realistically could even be mentioned as being Brady’s equal.
But for Milloy – who threw his support behind Brady back in 2001 even before the skinny kid from Michigan took over the Patriots – there are unmistakable similarities between the players.
"Matt’s a young, eager kid wanting to learn first and foremost," says Milloy, who was extremely close with Brady before being released by New England in a stunning move prior to the 2003 season. "They came in at different ends of the draft and at different pay scales, but they have a very similar approach to the game and their position on the team. Both have an outstanding presence."
According to Milloy, in order to have the kind of first-year success Brady had in 2001 (he only threw three passes in 2000, his rookie year) and Ryan is having in 2008, two elements need to be in place: raging self-assuredness that doesn’t put teammates off and a work ethic that makes that self-assuredness reasonable.
"I think I’m a good judge of players from being on successful teams and losing teams," Milloy said. "I didn’t know Matt would be this successful this early, but he does have some things you can’t coach on the field and in the locker room. I focus on a guy’s work ethic. Not what he’s saying but how he does things. Matt will stare down the barrel of a gun to give his team a chance to win. And the guys in the locker room are starting to feel that. When he has the ball in his hands at the end of the game, that’s what you want."
Hard evidence of that came in Week 6, when he helped the Falcons steal a win from a Bears team that took a 20-19 lead with 11 seconds left in the game. A short kickoff, a 26-yard Ryan to Michael Jenkins completion and a Jason Elam field goal gave the Falcons a stunning win. Last week against the Broncos, Ryan nearly pulled another rabbit from his hat. With Atlanta trailing 24-20 and 76 seconds left, Ryan took the snap on on third-and-18 from the Denver 45 and hit Roddy White in his hands in the end zone. White couldn’t hang on, and the Falcons fell to 6-4.
Those flash plays by Ryan don’t even come close to being what’s most impressive about his rookie season. That is, he doesn’t play like a rookie at all. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is 11-6. And he’s taken just 12 sacks in 10 games. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes. To further appreciate how well the third overall pick in the 2008 draft is playing, check out the stats of the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, JaMarcus Russell. Russell has six touchdowns, four picks, 26 sacks, is completing 51 percent of his passes and has five lost fumbles for the Raiders.
"His maturation process has accelerated much quicker than we as a coaching staff thought it would," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said on Wednesday. "We knew Matt had the skill set physically to be a successful quarterback, and we felt he had the intangibles that you’re looking for. But we thought there would be more bumps in the road."
But why has Ryan been able to assimilate so quickly?
"The reason Matt’s had success is, one, he’s a student of the game. And two, once he sees it, he remembers it. A lot of players it might take correction in the film room and maybe two or three times being exposed to something before they get it. With Matt, the thing that impresses us the most is he sees it on the field and the next time they run that coverage or blitz – boom – he’s got it."
At the NFL Combine in February, Ryan exuded confidence in his ability without seeming arrogant. His tone and words were so appropriate, I told him I thought he had to have been coached on what to say.
Smiling, Ryan said, "You have to be confident in yourself, and I was at that time. But at the same time, you have no background experience as to what you’ve done. In that respect, playing experience – success and failure – builds confidence, so I have more confidence now. It’s built as I’ve continued to have ups and downs. You have to believe you’re capable. But you don’t know until you’ve done it."
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Asked the one thing he’s learned from offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave that’s made a huge on-field difference, Ryan doesn’t hesitate.
"Working your eyes and being fundamentally sound with recognizing coverage at the snap," he said. "Once you know the coverage, you try to manipulate it with your eyes with an end of what you want to do with the football. It’s one thing, but it’s a tough thing to do. That’s been – without question – the number one thing I’ve realized since I’ve come down here. You have to recognize coverage in the beginning and work your eyes to get people in positions to run the routes you want them to."
Despite Ryan’s success and overall importance to Atlanta’s fortunes, he’s still a rookie. And with that comes an amount of chop-busting.
I asked wide receiver Brian Finneran about Ryan.
"You mean the little boy?" Finneran grinned. "My brother was here yesterday, and I said, ‘What do you think of Matt?’ He said, ‘The 12-year old?’ But on the football field, Matt is so football smart. In the first practice, almost right away, you could see it in his presence. He realizes he belongs."
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
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