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Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan doesn’t remember them all. The first one … sure. The big moments … without a doubt. But so many of the passes Ryan has completed over the past 14 seasons have blurred into a tapestry.
When you’ve had thousands of them, to 79 players, even a near-photographic memory is going to lose some snapshots.
“With 5,000 coming up,” Ryan said, “I think anybody’s lying to you that tells you they remember exactly every one.”
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With 25 more completions, Ryan will become the seventh player in NFL history to complete 5,000 regular-season passes and the fifth to do it with one team, joining Drew Brees (New Orleans), Tom Brady (New England), Brett Favre (Green Bay) and Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh).
Ryan consistently shrugs at accolades and accomplishments, like when he became the 10th player in NFL history to throw 350 touchdown passes earlier this season. It’s how he has been able to reach this milestone, by not resting on his past but trying to always pay attention to the present.
Ryan also doesn’t collect footballs, estimating he has 20 to 30 from his pro career. They are not under lock and key but “being launched around the house right now by my kids.” It has never been something important to him.
“The more you’re thinking about long-term or legacy type of things the less you’re worrying about what’s important that week,” Ryan said. “I try to compartmentalize. I’m really proud of that.”
Instead the importance comes in the results of those footballs. The ones that led to touchdowns and wins and divisional titles. And the almost 5,000 completions.
Ryan says he thinks he could remember a couple hundred instantaneously. If he saw the play, he would probably recall “Half. Maybe more.” To the receivers who caught passes from him, they are the ones who stand out.
Michael Jenkins (No. 11, 133 catches, 1,770 yards, five touchdowns)
Zero strong 62 comet sink.
Ryan remembers this one. Always will. It was his first everything: Pass. Completion. Touchdown. All in one 62-yard play against the Detroit Lions in Week 1 his rookie year in 2008.
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They’d worked on the play throughout training camp and organized team activities — it became a staple in Ryan’s early years — a combination of a curl and a flat on one side of the play and then a skinny post, where Jenkins lined up, on the other.
The Friday before, Ryan went to then-offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and asked for a familiar play for his first pass. Get a completion, get in rhythm. He’d been running the curl-flat concept since high school and “99%” of the time he’d go to that side of the route.
Unless one look was there.
“The defense showed exactly what they were going to do so I knew if I ran my route, the ball was going to be on point and just like it had been all training camp,” Jenkins said. “Hit that center step and the ball was right there. The safety was out of position and was able to run scot-free to the end zone.
“Off Matt went with his career.”
If the safety had been in position, Jenkins said, it wouldn’t have been a touchdown. A catch? Probably. The Falcons ran the play often that year. It offered Ryan, then a rookie, a bunch of safe options for completions and, in the right look, a big-play possibility.
Jenkins said he did what he could to get Ryan the ball from the play. Ryan, though, doesn’t have it. He has the helmet and jersey. But his first completion, touchdown and win? Nope, that ball is somewhere lost to the ethers of time.
The memory remains.
Later that season, against Chicago in Week 6, the Bears scored with 11 seconds left to take a 20-19 lead. Ryan, with six seconds remaining, completed a 26-yard deep corner to Jenkins — dubbed Play No. 8 in their two-minute offense — setting up a game-winning Jason Elam field goal.
“Right on the money, while he got hit,” Jenkins said. “I don’t even know if he saw the completion. So make those kind of throws early on in your career, this kid has the potential to be great.”
If there are ones that are most memorable to Ryan, on first recall, it is those two. His first completion and the one creating the first of his 39 game-winning drives and 31 fourth-quarter comebacks.
“That one is memorable for me. Really, the ones early in my career are the ones,” Ryan said. “It’s so new. It’s so fresh. You’re just overwhelmed from being in the NFL that those ones kind of stick.”
Harry Douglas (No. 4, 257 catches, 3,122 yards, eight touchdowns)
Drafted together in 2008, Douglas and Ryan have always connected. Douglas realized early on — through the two throws to Jenkins — he might be in a really good situation. It’s why Douglas couldn’t pick one, two or five catches of his own that were his favorite.
“The chemistry we had on the field and I think a lot of that came from the things that he orchestrated off the field,” Douglas said. “Us meeting together and what he wanted to do after practice off the field.”
Matt Ryan and Harry Douglas were in the same Falcons draft class, in 2008. AP Photo/David Goldman
That even came during the lockout in 2011, when Ryan organized 7-on-7 sessions at Buford High School to make sure they were ready whenever it ended. How he catered to his playmakers instead of them having to learn everything from him.
From Ryan quizzing younger players, to going to his receivers to ask them what signals should be in no-huddle because it’s easier for one person (Ryan) to learn it than a whole room of players. That included a quick motion like driving a truck to signal into a semi route or ‘Easy Easy,’ if he saw something to switch up a play.
“We loved to be in no-huddle,” Douglas said. “And we trusted Matt 100% and it was his job to survey the defense and get us into the best play.”
Roddy White (No. 2, 643 catches, 8,422 yards, 52 touchdowns)
The first pass White saw Ryan throw was the ugliest one. Ryan had just been drafted No. 2 overall by Atlanta. He showed up to OTAs and they were warming up together.
“You go down, pat-and-go and it’s like the easiest throw in the world to make to receivers because we’re not moving really fast and everything is just a jog,” White said. “And he just threw the biggest duck.
“And I was like, ‘Ah s—, we might be in trouble.'”
Roddy White was a little unsure about young Matt Ryan, but the signal-caller quickly won him over. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Falcons weren’t in trouble. White and Ryan became one of the NFL’s more prolific connections, perhaps no more so than on a 2010 day in Atlanta against Cincinnati where White had 11 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
Two receptions stand out. The first was a play White considers his favorite catch, snagging the ball two feet from the ground. It was a rare throw not at White’s helmet or numbers, but in a spot only he could grab it. White ran an underneath route across the middle — the play was called “Chief” — and he grabbed it full speed.
“He kind of threw it low and I was running to the left and I just caught it with one hand, caught it with my left hand low, boom, caught it,” White said. “… That was one that I thought, for myself, was like run this way, catch the ball going left.”
The second was a ball he grabbed on the sideline, one-handed, over his shoulder — a play Ryan audibled into because he saw man coverage. It was a play White could make because of the chemistry they had.
Ryan’s favorite completion to White came in the playoffs against Seattle in 2013 on a deep post — “a great route by him,” Ryan said. It was a 47-yard pass to give Atlanta a 20-0 lead — one of two highlight-reel plays from Ryan’s first playoff win.
Tony Gonzalez (No. 3, 383 catches, 3,956 yards, 35 touchdowns)
Gonzalez started describing another play before he stopped and changed his mind. This play … it was too good. On the 1-yard line against Seattle in the playoffs, Gonzalez ran into the end zone with Kam Chancellor, whom Gonzalez considers “probably the best strong safety of all time” on him. He’s covered.
So Gonzalez makes a mid-play adjustment on the corner route he’s supposed to run. Gonzalez stopped on the end line, let Chancellor run by him and leapt up to grab the ball, getting his right foot down, looking down and making sure he put his left foot down inbounds, too, just past the goalpost.
Tony Gonzalez played his final five NFL seasons with Matt Ryan and hauled in 35 touchdown passes. John Bazemore/AP Photo
“I put the brakes on and I remember, as I was doing it, it kind of flashes in your mind, but Matt is going to know where I’m at,” Gonzalez said. “That’s how much on the same page we were. He knew what I was going to do and I knew what he was going to do.”
This had come from four years of chemistry, four years of working together that started with a meeting the two of them had soon after Gonzalez arrived from Kansas City. A meeting where Gonzalez realized Ryan, coming off his NFL Rookie of the Year season, was different.
He saw Ryan’s seriousness, attention to detail, and how he treated every day as one to learn. How Ryan started running player meetings to make sure everyone understood everything. How he evolved from a young, talented quarterback to one of the better ones in the NFL.
All of the familiarity led to the touchdown-scoring ad-lib Gonzalez likened to a point guard leading a fast break and instinctively knowing where his options are going to be.
“We put it kind of on a back-shoulder spot and he toe-tapped and basically fell over,” Ryan said. “It was basically a shot behind a defender’s head, a back-shoulder kind of shot on an end line and that’s one of those things when you have a guy that, one, can do that you have to give him opportunities and have to throw him open with the ball.”
Julio Jones (No. 1, 833 catches, 12,628 yards, 59 touchdowns)
After White and Gonzalez left, the relationship with Jones grew into the longest one of his football career, a decade of pass-and-catch that meant everything to the legacies of Ryan and Jones.
No one connected with Ryan more.
“It’s just the trust,” Jones said.
It showed most in Super Bowl LI, with one of the most memorable catches in NFL history. Ryan scrambled right and threw the ball to Jones, who had two defenders close by, including Patriots corner Eric Rowe directly in front of him.
Matt Ryan and Julio Jones became one of the best quarterback-receiver tandems in NFL history. AP Photo/David Goldman
Jones leapt over Rowe to make the catch and somehow got his feet inbounds — somewhat similar to Gonzalez’s playoff catch against Seattle, although Jones had a bit more speed and velocity on his catch.
“Having played with him for so long, wasn’t really a great look to put it up but there are certain guys you play with in your career that you have to give them opportunities,” Ryan said. “And certainly in critical situations you have to give them opportunities and I tried to put it in a spot where only he could get it.
“Turned out to be a good spot, a great catch.”
At the time, Ryan thought that play might help secure the game — and a Lombardi trophy — for Atlanta instead of what happened next.
But there’s another Jones catch that stands out. It came the following season against New England. Atlanta was on the 1-yard line and Malcolm Butler lined up opposite Jones on the right side. Jones ran a fade and Butler covered him tighter than Rowe in the Super Bowl. Didn’t matter.
“He just basically stole the ball from the defender and snapped it away from him,” Ryan said. “That was a catch that was pretty ridiculous.”
Calvin Ridley (No. 6, 237 catches, 3,169 yards, 25 touchdowns)
Ryan’s current No. 1 receiver went back to the third game of his rookie year in 2018. At home against New Orleans, Ridley had seven catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
At age 23 and coming off his first touchdown a week earlier, Ryan and Jones told Ridley he was going to be needed in a big way.
“I believed it. I sat there and actually watched the film and listened to the older guys and listened to my coach,” Ridley said. “And, yeah, it kind of unfolded just how we were preparing. Worked out just like that.”
Ridley broke out — scoring in the first, second and third quarters. The first touchdown, an 18-yarder, was a double move where Ridley lined up on the right side, stopped and stuttered midway through his route to get P.J. Williams off balance, and then ran to the back of the end zone where Ryan placed the ball.
Calvin Ridley is Matt Ryan’s current No. 1 target and will be for years to come. Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
The second touchdown, Ridley lined up wide on the right and beat Williams off the line. Ryan recognized it, threw it up and it became a 75-yard touchdown.
“He absolutely smoked him on the right side and showed off just how dynamic his speed is,” Ryan said. “That was one for me that was an eye-opener that was like, ‘Wow, man, this guy can absolutely fly.’ And that’s one I’ll always remember from him.”
The third touchdown was improv. Ridley lined up on the left and the play broke down. So Ridley ran around in the end zone while Ryan scrambled. Ridley created space. Ryan found him.
It capped Ridley’s first breakout day and the start of things to come.
“It’s to a point where he trusts me to be where I need to be,” Ridley said. “You know, he may throw it to me when he doesn’t have to throw it to me. The trust level has gone from rookie year to now at a different level.”
Olamide Zaccheaus (No. 29, 29 catches, 458 yards, three touchdowns)
Backed up on their own 7-yard line, the first connection between Ryan and Zaccheaus was their most memorable. For Ryan, it was the longest pass of his career — 93 yards. For Zaccheaus, it had some symmetry to Ryan.
It was Zaccheaus’ first catch. And like Ryan’s first throw, it went for a very long touchdown after Zaccheaus was “kind of just thrown in the game.” Lined up on the left side, Zaccheaus took off and had one-on-one coverage against Donte Jackson.
Olamide Zaccheaus turned his first catch from Matt Ryan into a 93-yard touchdown. Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire
He caught the ball in the middle of the field on the Falcons logo — a ball Ryan got rid of before being hit on a blitz. Jackson missed the tackle and Zaccheaus ran the last 45 yards unbothered for the touchdown — the longest first reception in NFL history.
“After that play, the next week we just talked about it briefly, the experience of it,” Zaccheaus said. “Just like, he’s like, ‘That’s your first catch, right?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ It was a cool moment. I still need to get him to sign my ball. I’ll get there eventually.”
It was also the game where Ryan went over 50,000 yards passing and they honored White at halftime.
Justin Peelle (T-25, 36 catches, 361 yards, five touchdowns)
The picture hangs in his son’s room.
Facing his old team, the Chargers, in 2008, Peelle and the Falcons were in the red zone. He ran a corner post down the middle of the field. It was a play they’d worked on before. The moment it was called, Peelle knew he might have a chance.
Peelle caught the touchdown. At the time it was cool. Later, it became most memorable.
“A few years later, I’m coaching in Philly and we hire Bill Musgrave as our quarterback coach and he had that picture,” Peelle said. “Because coach [Mike] Smith used to hang pictures in the hallway from week to week and he had gotten that one.
“So Coach Musgrave, when he came to Philly, I was walking in my office one day and that picture was sitting right there.”
Peelle, now Atlanta’s tight ends coach, took it home. Long retired, it sits as a reminder to his son of what his dad used to do before he started coaching.
Brian Finneran (No. 23, 48 catches, 407 yards, four touchdowns)
It was a play the Falcons had run well before Ryan arrived in Atlanta, one that spanned multiple coaching staffs and offenses. It was a double-dagger route and Finneran — in the tail end of his career — was not often the first option in an offense with White, Gonzalez and Douglas.
But on this play, he felt good as the Z receiver set back off the line of scrimmage.
“I was going toward the back end line, line up outside, kind of make it look like a fade route and then break to the middle on the dig and he put a nice, high ball,” Finneran said. “I jumped up and as soon as I got in the air and caught it the safety came over and kind of hit me pretty hard to the ground but I hung on to it and scored a touchdown.”
Finneran, now a radio host in Atlanta, called Ryan the “ideal quarterback” because of his ability to throw to open receivers and understanding of defenses. By the time they played together, Finneran had only a few years left, something he has lamented time and time again.
Instead, they got three years together as Ryan was evolving, instead of at his peak.
“I wish I was younger and had two good knees when I was playing with Matt Ryan,” Finneran said. “Because he would have been fun to have a career with.”
D.J. Tialavea (T-68; one catch, 1 yard, one touchdown)
It was Week 16 of the 2016 season and Tialavea was about to play in an NFL game for the first time — one of two he’d appear in his entire career. After three years on the practice squad, he was active for the first time.
And here he was, in the game, on the Carolina 1-yard line. He was lined up on the left in a jumbo package and stumbled off the line. He recovered and ran the route across the end zone. Ryan was scrambling and so was Tialavea.
D.J. Tialavea made his lone NFL reception count, a 1-yard touchdown from Matt Ryan seen here in 2016. Jason Walle/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire
“I don’t even think the ball was supposed to go to me,” Tialavea said. “But Matt did a great job of rolling out and I was kind of wide open. Honestly, now that I think about it, I don’t even think I did my assignment right.”
The announcers, on the only catch and touchdown of his career, struggled to pronounce his last name.
Ryan doesn’t remember much of the play — remember the blurring — but he’ll never forget what happened after. Tialavea sprinted toward the goalpost, football in his right hand, his left hand pointing in the air, then touched his head and kept pointing to the crowd.
“He was just so excited that he couldn’t stop yelling,” Ryan said. “It was pretty funny to see.”
Kaleb McGary (T-68, one catch, minus-3 yards)
McGary doesn’t even consider it a catch. The record books do. But McGary — he just can’t.
Ryan dropped back to pass and McGary, then a rookie right tackle in 2019, was blocking Arizona’s Chandler Jones. Ryan went back to throw and Jones leapt up to swat the ball. He made contact. McGary heard a thud and saw the ball end-over-end into the air.
“I turn around and the ball falls in my hands,” McGary said. “I have this ‘Oh s—‘ moment and go down.”
He’s quickly hit and even now says he doesn’t consider it a catch. Every offensive lineman’s dream, McGary said, is to be a touchdown reception recipient instead of how McGary has his only grab to date.
“I wish that counted as a real catch and done something cool, like gotten back to the line of scrimmage, broken [a tackle], I wish,” McGary said. “That’s not what happened. That doesn’t count.”
One day, though, he hopes he can add a second catch and jokingly made a point — he’s got a perfect catch rating.
Logan Paulsen (No. 50, nine catches, 91 yards, one touchdown)
Twelve of Ryan’s pass-catchers have caught every ball he has thrown them, although none have caught more than Logan Paulsen, with nine.
Paulsen’s touchdown from Ryan came because of a substitution error.
No one came to get Paulsen on a red zone play in Week 4 of 2018 against Cincinnati. So Paulsen remained in. The defense, as it often did, rotated toward Jones. Paulsen took off on a seam route.
“Beat the linebacker and I was wide open,” Paulsen said. “I remember, the ball felt like it was in the air forever coming down and I kind of bobbled it but I was in the end zone so I didn’t need to run anywhere and I just caught it.
“I don’t score touchdowns every single day.”
The 17-yarder was Paulsen’s first touchdown since 2014. Ryan would complete a career-high 422 passes that year. Chances are, he hasn’t watched many of them since. For Paulsen, the catch was different. It was a big deal.
It was the last touchdown of his career. And it came from a potential Hall of Famer.
“As a receiver, Matt’s ideal,” Finneran said. “Because he throws a catchable ball, he understands every defense he faces, puts guys in the right position to be successful.”
And he has done it over and over again, almost 5,000 times.
ESPN reporters John Keim and Turron Davenport contributed to this story.