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From a boy to a man, Pennsylvania native Matt Ryan on a title quest

Matt Ryan was the NFL's highest-paid player for a few short months when he signed a five-year, $150 million extension with $100 million guaranteed. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The kid from outside Philadelphia played just about every position in football ... except quarterback.

Matt Ryan, from Exton, Pennsylvania, remembers suiting up for the Downington Young Whippets at age 8. Throwing the ball wasn't a requirement for boys weighing under 100 pounds. So Ryan settled on playing offensive line and fullback.

"Was I good at fullback? No," the 2016 NFL MVP said with a laugh. "But I played a little bit of everything when I was young, which is cool because it gives you an appreciation for how hard it is to play some of the other positions. I wasn't that good until I started playing quarterback. I kind of found my niche."

Credit Dan Driscoll for putting Ryan in position to succeed. Driscoll coached Marsh Creek Eagles youth football when Ryan was a seventh-grader. Driscoll's son became friends with Ryan, and Driscoll used to watch how natural Ryan looked throwing the football in the backyard. He pleaded with Ryan's older brother, Mike Jr., to nudge Ryan about joining the program and playing quarterback. Plus, Driscoll knew Ryan had quarterbacking in his bloodlines.

It's safe to say the position switch turned out OK for Ryan.

"He wasn't happy about playing on the line, and you and I know how Matt blocks. We've all seen that," Driscoll joked. "He was going in a direction of playing baseball. But I persuaded him to play for me.

"I knew from Day 1 he could throw the s--- out of the ball. ... Matt was throwing for over 150 yards a game as a little kid. Matt is the only quarterback that I gave permission to change a call or make his own call, and I've had a lot of quarterbacks come through here. Plus, that was his first year playing [quarterback], so that's how smart he was. But I always told him, 'Don't ever correct me in front of the other kids.'"

The year he joined, Ryan and his undefeated Marsh Creek White squad won the county league title on their home field: Hickory Park. Maybe he'll experience the same type of home-field success this season, with Super Bowl LIII set for Feb. 3, 2019, in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Thursday night starts yet another title quest for Ryan as his Atlanta Falcons open the season visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles at 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC). Playing close to home with family and friends always is special for Ryan, but getting the Falcons off to a fast start is his sole focus.

Losing to the Eagles in the last seconds of last year's divisional playoffs made the offseason less enjoyable. Plus, folks still bring up the Falcons blowing the 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl LI collapse against the New England Patriots.

Ryan has learned not to dwell on such losses, no matter how gut-wrenching.

"The way I'm wired, I hate losing more than I love winning," Ryan said. "I like to win, but it really stings to lose. Even with that, you learn that you have to get beyond it. It can't consume you moving forward. You can't let it ruin another week or another practice. You have to be tough enough, strong enough to get over those."

As Ryan, 33, enters his 11th NFL season, expectations are even higher since he briefly became the league's highest-paid player. He signed a five-year, $150 million extension ($100 million guaranteed), only to be exceeded a week ago by Aaron Rodgers' four-year, $180 million deal that included $103 million guaranteed.

"At the end of the day, when you're on the field, you don't think about money, and that ain't going to change the way he attacks the game," receiver Julio Jones said of Ryan. "With Matt, man, he's just been consistent. He's been 'Matty Ice,' coming back and winning games. Everything about him, he's been the same guy."

Things around Ryan certainly have changed since he entered the league out of Boston College as the Falcons' pick at No. 3 in 2008.

Sight adjustment

Ryan vividly remembers what happened on the third snap of his first NFL game on Sept. 7, 2008.

"Mike Jenkins, backside skinny post," Ryan said, referring to his 62-yard touchdown hookup with Jenkins on his first NFL pass. "Oh man, I was way too excited. I remember [backup QB] Chris Redman was telling me, 'When you make a good play in this league, don't celebrate too much because you'll wear yourself out.'

"So I was going crazy when I threw it, and then I was on the sideline just exhausted. And he was like, 'Dude, I told you.' I was like, 'I'm sorry, bro. That was my first time.'"

It certainly wasn't his last. Ryan enters the season with 260 touchdown passes, 41,796 passing yards, 45 300-yard games, and a passer rating of 93.4; all franchise records. The four-time Pro Bowler owns a 57-10 record when posting a passer rating of 100 or better and is 26-5 when he throws three or more touchdowns. Those numbers are great, but Ryan would be the first to say he'd rather have a Super Bowl ring on his finger and a postseason record better than 4-6.

Though Ryan continues to fine-tune aspects of his play, he marvels at how defenses have changed since he burned the Detroit Lions for that score in '08.

"Scheme-wise, there's definitely more zone blitzes and different droppers from the D-line; just more exotic blitzes than you saw 10 years ago," Ryan said. "I'd also say the [defensive] players have gotten smaller and faster, especially at linebacker and on the defensive line. Not that they weren't athletic back then, but they were bigger.

"I just remember linebackers like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in Chicago. Those guys were big, man. When we played the Steelers and their 3-4 interior linebackers, they were big dudes."

Offenses have evolved, as well. For Ryan, the evolution took him through four offensive coordinators: Mike Mularkey, Dirk Koetter, Kyle Shanahan and now Steve Sarkisian. Mularkey, last the head coach of the Tennessee Titans, came to a Falcons practice in the offseason, and the bond Ryan has with his first NFL coordinator remains strong.

"Mike was about detail," Ryan said of Mularkey. "That's probably the biggest thing I learned with him. His attention to detail was as good as anybody I've ever been around. It lasted for me throughout my career. Definitely the attention to detail is there, making sure we're on top of things early in the week and throughout the week."

From Koetter, now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach, Ryan said he learned more about the passing game and exploiting different matchups, moving targets around. From Shanahan, now the San Francisco 49ers' head coach, Ryan became better acquainted with the zone run scheme.

"It was such a different offense than what I was accustomed to with the other two guys," Ryan said. "I learned a ton about play-action and marrying the [zone run scheme] up with it to take advantage of defenses."

The most compelling topic now is how Ryan will fare in Year 2 of working with Sarkisian. In Year 2 with Shanahan, Ryan won the MVP and the Falcons averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game. Sarkisian came in and adjusted to the scheme rather than implementing his own, and the growing pains were evident. This season should feature more of Sarkisian putting his own stamp on the offense while catering to Ryan's strengths.

"With Sark, I've learned a lot about taking some of those things that they've done in college, some of those RPOs [run-pass option], some ways to spread teams out -- not only for the pass game but more so for the run game," Ryan said. "Around the league, the RPO thing has probably been the biggest [offensive] change. We have used it in different situations, and it's good. The stress it puts on defenses and where it allows you to get space in the run game, all of that stuff is really good."

Healthy outlook

Ryan hasn't missed a game because of injury since turf toe sidelined him in 2009. Taking care of his body has become more of a priority than ever.

Not that Ryan was reckless when it came to his health, although his vice is pizza. He did, however, tweak his diet some, such as eliminating some sugar to help avoid inflammation.

"As simple as this sounds, but even just removing the sugar that I put in my coffee," Ryan explained. "Having two cups of coffee every a day, removing the sugar, and drinking black coffee, I probably changed that six or seven years ago. And something as small as that, if you think about how much sugar you put in your body through the course of the year, little changes like that make a big difference."

Ryan's now-retired former teammate, Tony Gonzalez, was extremely health-conscious, so Gonzalez's habits rubbed off. Ryan makes certain to eat "real food" and avoid packaged and frozen meals.

Ryan said he weighs 7 pounds less than he did as a rookie, which has helped his on-field stamina. Most important of all, he has changed his sleep habits since his rookie season.

"Probably the two biggest things that have changed about my routine is being more efficient with my time and my sleep," Ryan said. "I get nine-plus hours of sleep now, especially during the season. Early on in my career, it was like six and a half, seven. As far as taking care of my body for the length of the season, that's one area I've changed, and I've been better for it."

Ryan can rest a lot easier these days for another reason. He and his wife, Sarah, have twin boys who are a little older now, and the middle-of-the-night crying has cut back quite a bit.

"It's definitely, for sure, made me more patient with teammates or with other stuff," Ryan said of becoming a father. "I realized that you are not in control all the time, and that was probably a really good thing for me to learn."

Maybe Ryan and the Falcons will control their own destiny if they take advantage of an early schedule that includes five of the first seven games at home. The returning champion Eagles, fast-rising Los Angeles Rams, along with the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings are all teams that figure to contend for supremacy in the NFL.

Ryan, armed with arguably the best receiver in the game in Jones, a new talent in rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley, a two-headed running game with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman -- and not to mention, a young, talented defense -- has the team around him to make another Super Bowl run.

"I think you learn that, in the biggest of situations, it's just about going out there and executing and playing the same way that you do all the time," Ryan said. "I think in order for us to be able to [get back to the Super Bowl] again, we just have to continue to work the same way that we have and have the belief and the bond to take us to where we want to go."