0

Rookie Risk
Falcons make Ryan the starter, but at what cost?

FLOWERY BRANCH - With Michael Vick out of the picture, the Atlanta Falcons wasted little time anointing Matt Ryan as the new face of the franchise.

They drafted the quarterback third overall, lavished him with a $72 million contract and decided three preseason games was enough to make him the starter.

Will they regret that decision down the road?

The Falcons are certainly putting themselves at some risk by going with a rookie at such a high-profile position, especially when he'll be playing behind an offensive line that could be one of the leakier units in the league.

Protecting Ryan's blind side at the critical left tackle position is another rookie, Sam Baker. Lining up next to Baker is second-year guard Justin Blalock. On the right side, Atlanta could start not one, but two linemen who weren't even drafted out of college, Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo.

But the Falcons' new coach, Mike Smith, has no qualms about going with Ryan right from the start.

'There's no hesitancy at all,' Smith said Wednesday. 'We told the players from day one that it was an open competition for every position on the field. Matt won the job. It would be an injustice not to play the best

players and give our team the best opportunity to win.'

He can only hope that Ryan doesn't become another David Carr.

The top overall pick in 2002 by the expansion Houston Texans, Carr started all 16 games his very first season. It was a dubious decision that might have cost him any chance of ever becoming anything more than a journeyman pro.

Playing behind a shaky line - hmm, that sounds familiar - Carr was sacked an NFL-record 76 times as a rookie, which understandably hurt his confidence and left him wary of getting hit, the notorious 'happy feet' syndrome that has ruined many a top prospect.

Carr lasted five seasons in Houston but never produced a winning record. He's now backing up Eli Manning on the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

'It would have obviously helped to have more talent around him,' said Houston offensive lineman Chester Pitts, one of the few original Texans still with that team. 'If things could have been different, maybe it would have played out differently.'

Ryan put up decent numbers in the preseason, completing about 58 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and one interception, good enough to beat out veteran Chris Redman for the starting job. The rookie also was sacked four times, giving him a little taste of what he may be in for this year.

But Ryan shrugged off any comparisons to Carr, even while he prepares to lead a team that went 4-12 last season in the wake of Vick's dogfighting case and has the look of an expansion team heading into Sunday's opener against the Detroit Lions.

The 53-man roster that includes 19 players - seven of them rookies - with no more than one year of pro experience. The Falcons are certainly in a rebuilding mode, with most prognosticators picking them to finish last in the NFC South with no more than two or three wins.

'It doesn't really concern me,' said Ryan, whose unflappable demeanor should come in handy. 'There's going to be ups and downs, and I have to be able to deal with that, learn from it and try to be a better player at the end of the year than I was at the beginning.'