How Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford and Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan became best friends

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Matt Ryan is a scratch golfer, and while Matthew Stafford is far better than he lets on, there’s no comparing the two on the links.

“Matt’s a way better golfer than I am,” Stafford said Wednesday. “He’s probably one of the best I’ve ever played with.”

On the basketball court, Stafford and Ryan have similar games, or did in the Atlanta church league they played in during the 2017 offseason, at least, when they mostly stood in the corner sniping threes while their wives carried their team to a championship.

Football, though, is where Stafford and Ryan’s real competitive spirits come out.

NFL besties who’ve known each other for more than a decade but became close during the 2015 Pro Bowl, Stafford and Ryan will square off for the fifth time as pros Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons host the Detroit Lions at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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“I feel like when we play we’re both competitive dudes, we just want to go win,” Stafford said. “We’ll probably have a dinner wager on it or something like that, but we’ll just be – something friendly – but we’ll be just trying to beat each other.”

Ryan has won three of the previous four meetings, including their last in 2017, but the two have traveled parallel paths for most of their careers.

The first quarterbacks taken in back-to-back drafts in 2008 (Ryan went third overall) and 2009 (Stafford went first), Ryan and Stafford rank fifth and seventh, respectively, on the NFL’s active career passing list.

Both players hold most of their franchise’s passing records, both have two of the NFL’s top 20 all-time passing seasons, and while Ryan won NFL MVP honors in 2016 and led the Falcons to the Super Bowl, both have seen their teams fall on hard times recently.

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The Falcons (1-5) got their first win of the season last week, 40-23, over the Minnesota Vikings, days after Falcons owner Arthur Blank was noncommittal about the 35-year-old Ryan’s long-term future with the team. Ryan threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns against the Vikings, earning NFC Player of the Week honors.

Stafford, 32, has faced similar questions about his future in Detroit as the Lions (2-3) have piled up familiar-looking losses the past two years, putting coach Matt Patricia’s job in jeopardy.

Asked Wednesday if he gave Ryan any advice about the Falcons’ current plight – Atlanta fired head coach Dan Quinn 10 days ago – Stafford said the two “talk quite a bit during the season.”

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“Anything and everything kind of comes up,” he said. “We’re always really checking in on family, making sure everybody’s doing good. Part of having a friendship is being able to have conversations and not have to tell everybody in the media what we talk about, so I’ll do that. But he’s a good buddy.”

While their shared experiences as NFL quarterbacks drew them together, both Stafford and Ryan said their bond was forged over family.

Kelly Stafford and Sarah Ryan are as close as their husbands, and the couples have similar-aged twins. According to the Falcons website, Kelly and Sarah went through in vitro fertilization around the same time, and the Ryans created the “Stafford Strong” wristband Matthew wore while playing last season after Kelly underwent brain surgery.

“I knew Matthew in passing for a long time, since really he came into the league, but I really got to know him at the Pro Bowl in (2015), and got to meet him and his wife Kelly and we got to know them a little bit better, spend some time with them, and realized we live really close to each other during the offseason and so just started a friendship from there and we’ve been close friends ever since,” Ryan said. “But the circle is small. You get to know people pretty well in this league the longer you hang around, and so we’ve got so much in common and live in the same place, he’s been a great friend throughout the years.”

Stafford called Ryan his closest non-teammate friend in football. Ryan was the one who suggested Stafford work with a private throwing coach a few years ago, something that coincided with an uptick in Stafford’s play, and the families occasionally vacation together in the offseason. 

This week, Stafford said he and Ryan have been in contact like usual, taking part in a Zoom conference Tuesday for a feature for the Falcons website, but will put their friendship temporarily aside when they step on the field.

“I’ll obviously pay attention when he’s on the field, like I do every other quarterback. He’ll do the same I’m sure when I’m out there,” Stafford said. “But (we’re) trying to go win the game and both of our teams didn’t get off to the start that we wanted to get off to and it’s important for us to go out there and try to win as many as we possibly can.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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