ATLANTA– Debate raged in NFL circles almost three years ago as two franchises embarked on a quest for a franchise quarterback.
The rigorous job requirements for a select group of applicants: a rocket arm, accuracy, intelligence, size, mobility, toughness, poise, character and leadership.
Both the Baltimore Ravens and the Atlanta Falcons were in desperate need of those qualities to lead their respective offensive huddles.
And the Falcons didn’t hesitate to act, quickly tabbing Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick of the first round.
The Ravens were enamored of Ryan and had spent a considerable amount of time scouting him, but quickly discovered that trading up for him from the eighth pick was far too expensive an endeavor in terms of compensation demands.
So, the Ravens retreated to 26th overall before haggling with the Houston Texans and trading upward to land Flacco with the 18th pick of the first round. The former University of Delaware star had wowed the Ravens’ coaching staff and scouting department during visits and private workouts.
The contrast between Flacco’s serious nature and laidback and unsuccessful former Ravens starter Kyle Boller were immediately obvious.
Three seasons later, neither team has any regrets as Ryan and Flacco square off tonight at the Georgia Dome.
Ryan is the unquestioned leader of the Falcons (6-2) with a 17-1 record at home. And Flacco is on a torrid pace for the Ravens (6-2) as the hottest quarterback in the league with a 108.6 passer rating and 11 touchdowns and one interception over the past six games.
“I think they’re both very good quarterbacks,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They both have all the skills to lead their teams to great heights. Obviously, they’re two of the younger quarterbacks in the league and it’ll be interesting to see how they develop over the next couple of years. We have a lot of respect for Matt.”
Flacco is considered to have the stronger arm and better overall mobility.
Ryan throws a very accurate deep ball and is regarded highly for his savvy on the field.
Statistically, they’re practically mirror images.
Flacco is 26-14 as a starter with 61.5 percent career accuracy for 8,501 yards, 47 touchdowns, 30 interceptions and an 85.8 passer rating.
And Ryan is 26-12 as a starter with 60.4 percent accuracy, 8,305 yards, 51 touchdowns, 30 interceptions and an 85.7 passer rating.
What separates these two talented young quarterbacks?
“Tough to say,” Ryan said during a conference call. “He certainly has a skill set that’s probably a little bit different than mine. At the end of day, more similar than different. We’re just two bigger guys that throw well from the pocket. Both of us have been able to get outside the pocket and make plays, too.”
For this season, Flacco has completed 60.8 percent of his throws for 1,917 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions for an 88.9 passer rating. Four of his interceptions were against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ryan has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 1,949 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a slightly higher 90.2 passer rating.
“I think they’ll be hooked together their entire career,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “When that great class of 1984, all those great quarterbacks, they always talk about those guys that came in together. When you come in at the same time, especially at the quarterback position, which is probably the most scrutinized position in all of sports, I think they always be compared to one another. Both of them have played very effective football through these first two-and-a-half seasons.”
Flacco became the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games, helping the Ravens reach the AFC championship game.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s Falcons lost in the opening round.
Naturally, Flacco doesn’t spend his time thinking about comparisons.
He’s too busy watching game film.
“I really don’t care,” Flacco said when asked if he measures his progress against Ryan. “You guys are going to make the comparisons no matter what, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really matter to me either way. ..
“I’m sure someday we’ll look at that and hopefully we’ll both have a couple of Super Bowls or I’ll have them all and he won’t have any. We’re still young. We’re just out there each week trying to play well.”
In a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to stay atop the NFC South last week, Ryan completed 24 of 36 passes for 245 yards and one touchdown with a 94.1 passer rating.
Ryan has thrown at least one touchdown pass in seven consecutive games. Since 2008, the Falcons are 13-4 when Ryan throws multiple touchdown passes.
And his 51 touchdown passes since entering the league ranks sixth in the NFC behind Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb.
“He’s a great leader, a tremendous arm, great touch, very accurate,” Harbaugh said. “And I think those are things that Joe and he have in common.”
Flacco and Ryan didn’t grow up too far apart.
Both 25-year-olds are East Coast guys.
Flacco is from Audubon, N.J., where he was a standout quarterback and pitcher.
And Ryan had a stellar prep career in Philadelphia, becoming known as “Matty Ice.”
“He’s a really nice guy, I have a good relationship with him,” Ryan said. “Really, I’ve been impressed with the way he’s played the last couple of years.”
Heading into the draft, Flacco was the lone small-school product out of the quarterback class of 2008.
Ryan ruled the Atlantic Coast Conference. Henne was a Big Ten Conference product for the storied University of Michigan program. And Brian Brohm had rewritten the Louisville passing record book.
“There was me, Matt, Chad Henne and Brian Brohm, there was a handful of guys, and I had no idea where I fit in, if I fit in with those guys at all, in terms of where I was going to be drafted,” Flacco said. “Draft day was definitely a surprise for me just no matter what happened. I felt like I could be picked as early as I was and I felt like I could have went back to the fourth, fifth, sixth rounds.
“You never know. Coming from a small school and not really getting a good read on how people do think of you, you don’t know. And you hear all kind of stories from people about how teams told them they were going to pick them here and they didn’t pick them until three rounds later. You can’t anticipate anything or you’ll end up being disappointed.”
Harbaugh recalled the Ravens’ interaction with Ryan prior to the 2008 NFL draft.
The Ravens spent a lot of time evaluating all of the top quarterbacks that spring, including future Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne who went in the second round.
Henne was benched Wednesday and replaced by veteran Chad Pennington after throwing three interceptions last Sunday in a 26-10 loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
“When you have an interest in a position, you look at them all because you just never know who’s going to slide,” Harbaugh said. “So, we looked at Matt very hard. We thought he was everything that he has become. We thought the world of him.”
And so did the Falcons, who also put Flacco through a private workout and flew him in for a visit.
Ultimately, they wound up with Ryan and they never looked back.
Both quarterbacks’ respective games should be on full display tonight.
Flacco will be trying to dart passes downfield to Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap while Ryan targets Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
“Matt has been a starter since we drafted him and I think he has become the leader of our team,” Smith said. “That’s something that you don’t anoint a player. It’s earned, and it’s earned by production on the field. Matt’s got the skill set that I think all the great quarterbacks in this league have and that is he’s very accurate with the football and he’s a good decision-maker.
“I think Matt’s going through a maturation process. I think it was sped up because of the opportunities that he got to play and play early. Even though he’s a third-year player, he’s very similar to Joe there in Baltimore. He’s got a lot of games underneath his belt, and I think that’s good for both organizations and both teams.”