FLOWERY BRANCH - Matt Ryan's Atlanta Falcons teammates say the quarterback will be even better in 2009 than he was when he won widespread acclaim as the NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 2008.
'By leaps and bounds,' fullback Ovie Mughelli said of Ryan on Wednesday as the Falcons approached the end of their organized team activities. 'It's actually scary how much he's improved and it's only his second year. People thought he couldn't get much better than last year.
'In the weight room, what he's done out here, his arm strength, the way he reads plays, he's gotten better in every aspect.'
The Falcons will have their last day of workouts today and begin training camp on Aug. 1.
Ryan led the Falcons to an 11-5 record - an unexpected jump from a 4-12 finish in 2007 - and a playoff spot last season. Michael Turner rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first season as a full-time starter, and Roddy White had 88 receptions for 1,382 yards.
Ryan, Turner, White and Mughelli have been joined by 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was acquired from Kansas City.
The Falcons, who a year ago were a popular pick to finish last in the NFC South, now look like a rising force, especially on offense.
'The thing you see out there across the board is confidence, starting with Matt at quarterback, all the way down,' said center Todd McClure. 'Everybody just has a different confidence than we had even last year, because we were trying to learn a new system. Now we have a year under our belt and that confidence can take us a long way if we can just stay together.'
Coach Mike Smith says he has focused on the Falcons' passing game in the organized workouts.
'Matt is making good decisions and being accurate with the football,' Smith said. 'I don't think those two traits can be overlooked. That's what we've emphasized with Matt, make better decisions and to be more accurate throwing the football.'
Ryan says the Falcons already are preparing to deal with increased expectations.
'I heard a quote from coach Smith, 'expect to win but don't get caught up in expectations,' Ryan said. 'I think that's pretty pertinent because you can't worry about all the long-term stuff. You just have to go out there and have confidence in yourself and not worry about all the long-term stuff that goes with it.'
Ryan said he began studying film after the Falcons' playoff loss to Arizona as he focused on making better decisions in key situations.
'The No. 1 thing going into the offseason for me was to improve the decision-making and so I've watched a ton of film, just trying to get better and to sharpen up for next season,' he said. 'I'm going to continue to do that for the next two or three months.'
Ryan completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,440 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He said there's much room to reach the levels of improvement that Mughelli sees.
'Quarterbacks make their living on third down and in the red zone, so those are areas I felt I could improve on from last year,' he said. 'You also make your living at the end of the game so you want to make good plays and make good decisions in two-minute situations, so those are areas I definitely focused on.'
Notes: The Falcons released offensive lineman Alex Stepanovich, who played in four games last season. ... OL Jeremy Newberry, who signed with the team on Monday, is working at guard and center.