CHARLOTTE — There’s a problem with setting the bar so high in year one. When you run face first into the bar in year two, everybody notices.
Matt Ryan hasn’t necessarily been a spectacular crash this season. But he certainly hasn’t been the quarterback that most expected after a first season that saw him lead a seemingly flat-lined franchise to the playoffs. And yes — any doubts about whether something was wrong just ended.
The Falcons lost to the Carolina Sunday, 28-19. We can rationalize several reasons why this may have happened. Kicker Jason Elam botched a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter. The defense crumbled yet again. Aliens abducted John Abraham.
But put this one on Ryan. He threw two interceptions — dreadful interceptions. The first came in the second quarter after the Falcons had closed to 14-10. It led to a Panthers’ touchdown drive just before the half that made it 21-10. The second was a game-killer — with 3:45 left from the Carolina 49, and the Falcons trailing, 21-19.
Both came on the opening plays of drives. Both sailed high over a wide receiver, Michael Jenkins, who has long arms and stands 6-foot-4. Both were mistakes many of us were deluded into believing Ryan would not, could not commit with a game on the line.
This is a troubling transition. The franchise centerpiece just went from a quarterback who lately has struggled to win games to one who just lost one.
“There’s going to be things you have to learn along the way,” Ryan said later when asked about his drop in accuracy. “There’s a lot of tough teams you’re going against. I feel like I’m learning a bunch and continuing to get better. But I’ve just made some mistakes, and that’s gonna happen.
“I just made some throws that weren’t on point.”
Learning curves are normal for young quarterbacks. But could we have anticipated this curve would turn 180 degrees?
Ryan’s first four games: 66.7 percent completion percentage, seven touchdowns, two interceptions.
Ryan’s last five games: 54.9, seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions.
Why? That answer isn’t clear. If Ryan knows, he’s not saying.
“Different things come up week in and week out,” he said. “I’m young. I’ve got a long way to go, a lot of improving to do, and a lot of things to learn. And I feel you do learn things in your second year that you don’t learn in your first. I’m trying to soak up everything I can.”
Soak this up: The Falcons are in trouble. They’re 5-4. That record certainly doesn’t scream they’re walking the Green Mile. But this is a team that goes as the offense goes. It’s not a roster built for 13-10 wins.
But now look: Running back Michael Turner is out with an ankle sprain, which was significant enough to keep him out the last two and a half quarters Sunday. Ryan, the other key member of the offense, looks average (maybe). If he stays average, the offense is dead and the Falcons’ playoff hopes will sleep with it.
Coach Mike Smith declined to let offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey or quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave speak to the media. Smith and players came to Ryan’s defense. Everybody accepted blame, as you would expect.
Smith: “I thought Matt’s play was just like the rest of the football team. We didn’t sustain the level of play we needed to be successful.”
Wide receiver Roddy White also said, “We didn’t lose this game because of Matt. We all just gave it away.”
But he offered one solid theory as to why Ryan’s production has fallen off.
“Teams have seen him now on tape for a whole year,” he said. “They’re playing to his strengths and weaknesses, and they’re doing a good job.”
If this is an aberration, we’re about to find out. Three of the next four games come against the New York Giants, Philadelphia and New Orleans. The season will be either saved or buried. And now we have to wonder if the bar for Ryan was set too high.