Whereas the rest of the football world will be watching with fresh eyes Saturday when Atlanta squares off against Philadelphia in a divisional playoff game, it’s a matchup Brian McCloskey sees every week.
Virtually every fall Sunday in the McCloskey household, it’s Falcons versus Eagles.
That’s because he was the high school coach of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who grew up in Philadelphia, as well as a devoted Eagles fan. So McCloskey has side-by-side TVs in his home, and each week tunes in to the Falcons on one and Eagles on the other.
“I’m conflicted, I’m absolutely conflicted,” McCloskey said this week, sitting in a classroom at William Penn Charter School, Ryan’s alma mater. “Here’s someone that I love and I coached. But at the same time, my whole life I’ve been like, ‘Let’s see the Eagles win the Super Bowl.’ It’s a bizarre week.
“I’ve been saying this all week. I hope Matt plays well. I want to see him come out healthy and has a great game. But I’d really like to see the Eagles move on. I’m hoping for a Super Bowl. This town craves one maybe more than any place in the country.”
Ryan, last season’s NFL most valuable player, understands that feverish Philadelphia desire. He once bled green. He grew up an Eagles fan, a Donovan McNabb devotee, so it’s always a little different for him to return to the place his parents still call home. Of course, after 10 years in the NFL, and with this being his fifth trip to Lincoln Financial Field, the novelty has worn off a bit.
“I’m used to it now,” Ryan told reporters this week. “Playing as long as I have, I understand regardless of where we play, you have to be at your best every week. The one nice part is there will be a lot of familiar faces, friendly faces after the game, which is always nice.”
Before the game, there will be plenty of nervous faces. Whereas the sixth-seeded Falcons are on a roll, fresh off a first-round road win over the Rams, the Eagles are still unsure about how ready they are after losing star quarterback Carson Wentz to a season-ending knee injury a month ago.
So far, there’s been a dramatic drop-off in offensive productivity with Nick Foles at quarterback. The Eagles have survived a series of costly injuries, including losing their All-Pro left tackle and standout middle linebacker, but the loss of Wentz could lead to an early exit in the postseason. For the first time in NFL history, a No. 1 seed is the underdog in its playoff opener against a No. 6.
The Falcons have not had much luck in Philadelphia. Ryan is 1-3 there, including his worst regular-season game of 2016, when Atlanta lost 24-15. That wasn’t a terrible performance, but he looked mortal in an otherwise spectacular string of games, completing 18 of 33 passes for 267 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
With Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator instead of Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons have not been as productive this season. They haven’t had as many explosive plays down the field. The way the Eagles see it, that does not mean Ryan is less dangerous.
“Last year he was playing at the MVP level, and it’s the same quarterback,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He can make all the throws. He’s got command of the offense. Gets the ball out of his hands quick, especially with pressure, but pressure doesn’t affect him too much. Got a ton of weapons to get the ball to. So, he’s as complete of a quarterback as there is in this league.”
Not surprisingly, Ryan is revered at his alma mater. He was a three-sport captain at Penn Charter, which was founded in 1689 by William Penn and the Religious Society of Friends. The private school, which has about 900 students ranging from preschool through 12th grade, is the oldest Quaker school in the world, and is on 47 acres in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia. The stately buildings — composed of gray Wissahickon schist, a local stone — have a 146-foot clock tower as their centerpiece.
Industrialist Pierre DuPont, the onetime chairman of General Motors, was a student there. So was J. Presper Eckert, co-creator of the world’s first electronic computer; major league baseball players Mark Gubicza and Ruben Amaro Jr., and Adam F. Goldberg, creator of ABC’s “The Goldbergs.”
But at the top of the list of distinguished alumni this week is Ryan, who went on to become a standout at Boston College and was the third overall pick in the 2008 draft.
“Matt Ryan in a lot of ways exemplifies what’s best about Penn Charter,” said Beth Glascott, assistant head of school. “He was a kid who worked hard, who took advantage of everything Penn Charter had to offer. We’re a Quaker school, so those important values of respect and simplicity and equality and stewardship… He’s a real role model for kids today.”
People at the school still talk about the way he dropped in on the football team two summers ago, only giving the coaches a heads-up on that day. The players were awestruck. He worked out with them for a couple of hours, then talked to them about the importance of their education, before heading out.
This is the first playoff game Ryan will play in his hometown.
For his old coach, at least, the game will turn out well.