We begin by stipulating that Matt Ryan established a ridiculously high standard in a ridiculously short time. He was the greatest rookie quarterback the NFL has seen — better than Marino, better than Big Ben — and there seems no reason he won’t develop into a truly great quarterback soon. But here I borrow a favorite Ryan expression: “That said … ”
That said, he hasn’t been quite as good in Year 2 as in Year 1. Perhaps it’s because the Falcons have played a wicked schedule — the first soft game comes Sunday against Washington — but his numbers are down in virtually every category. And it isn’t just the numbers. For reasons unclear, Matty Ice doesn’t seem as cool.
After the Falcons lost in New Orleans, I asked Thomas Dimitroff, whose drafting of Ryan in 2008 changed the course of this franchise, if he’s concerned. “Absolutely not,” the GM said. “Defenses have been giving him different looks. But he’s been resilient; he has a short memory. I have all the faith in the world in Matt. We know the things he’s going to do will be positive.”
Same question to Mike Smith. “I’m not concerned at all,” the coach said. “We judge on 16 games, not one game or not three games. Statistically it hasn’t been his best [stretch of games], but we can’t make that judgment until the end of the season.”
To Ryan’s credit, he has the Falcons at 4-3. Given their schedule, they might well have started 3-4 or worse. But now we turn to those pesky numbers. Ryan is the NFL’s 18th-rated passer; he was 11th last season. His rating is 82.6; it was 87.7 last season. His completion percentage has dropped from 61.1 to 59.7, which isn’t a major decline, but he has thrown nine interceptions in seven games; last season he threw 11 in 16.
His receivers have failed him on occasion. Michael Jenkins dropped a cinch first down in the Superdome, and a diving Roddy White couldn’t hold a touchdown at the end line. But we should also note that Ryan in Year 2 has the considerable asset of Tony Gonzalez, and still the Falcons, sixth in the NFL in total offense in 2008, are 17th now.
Much of that has to do with the decline of the running game, but they got what they needed from Michael Turner (151 swift and powerful yards) on Monday night, and the beset defense didn’t play all that badly. The Falcons lost because of two interceptions: The first was returned for a touchdown at the end of the first half; the second came when the Falcons had a chance to nose ahead with 8 1/2 minutes left.
Some fans contend neither was Ryan’s fault. White was bumped out of his route on the first throw and the second was deflected by Jonathan Vilma. But Ryan himself called the first interception “a poor decision on my part,” and on the second he had a clear view of Vilma downfield. He needed to get the ball over him. He did not.
Is it nit-picking to note that a second-year quarterback had his second-worst game — only Tampa Bay on Sept. 14, 2008, has yielded a lower rating — in a pressurized environment? Perhaps. “We say we like to evaluate ourselves at the end of a season,” Ryan said Monday, and the season does have nine games remaining.
Then this: “That said, I’ve got to play better. As a quarterback, I’ve got to protect the ball.”
He knows his position and accepts the responsibilities. He is, as ever, an impressive guy. The guess is that he’ll battle through this downturn and lead his team to the playoffs again. But these past three games have offered the first extended glimpse of an imprecise Ryan, and the effect has been jarring. We’ve already come to expect so much more.