Regarding this Falcons’ season, only one question remains, and it will be answered next week in Tampa. Regarding the Falcons as a team, a question has arisen, a question we didn’t figure we’d be asking. But here it is:
What if the franchise quarterback isn’t quite a franchise quarterback?
We stipulate by saying that, if on the day Matt Ryan was drafted we’d have known the Falcons would be 19-10 (and 13-1 at home) with him as a starting quarterback, we’d have swooned on the spot. And we spent all last season swooning. But the greatest rookie quarterback in league history — and that’s what he was — hasn’t been the greatest sophomore quarterback in NFL annals.
Sunday was another installment in Ryan’s good-but-not-great season. He completed barely half his passes and had to hit on his final five to manage that. He threw three touchdown passes against no interceptions, but he was sacked three times and fumbled twice. He finished with 250 yards and his team won 31-3, but after two quarters Ryan was only 10-for-23 and his team’s lead was 10-0 against a Buffalo roster so defoliated it wouldn’t have troubled Alabama.
Yes, there were extenuating circumstances. Michael Turner didn’t play. Tony Gonzalez left midway through. Ryan did buy his team a working lead on the Falcons’ first snap, throwing long to Roddy White down the right side. And Ryan himself is still hurting from turf toe — he limped during the game and sported a soft boot afterward.
And maybe that’s the story of Matt Ryan’s 2009 season: It was extenuating. Almost nothing went wrong last season; a lot did this time. Guys got hurt. The schedule got tougher. And still he has gotten this team to the cusp of those forever-sought consecutive winning seasons. He hasn’t been anything approaching a failure. That said …
Matty Ice hasn’t been as precise in Year 2. His completion percentage has dipped from 61.1 to 57.6. He has thrown one more interception in 13 games than he did in 16 last year. His yards-per-pass index — probably a better indicator than the confusing quarterback rating — has gone from 7.9 last season to 6.5.
Asked about Ryan’s non-rookie season, White said: “I think it’s been pretty good. He’s done a lot of good things. He’s thrown 20 touchdown passes, and that’s good. Him getting hurt really hurt. But he’s a competitor.”
Notice, though, there was no gushing in that response. When anyone associated with the Falcons was asked about Ryan in 2008, gushing ensued. In many ways that was to be expected; there was no way Ryan could have surprised his audience after his bravura rookie campaign. Still, there hasn’t been a Ryan game in 2009 that made you want to shout, “Hallelujah!” (The second half against the Giants did. But not the whole game.)
Asked to characterize Year 2, Ryan said: “The biggest thing — and this is something Coach [Mike] Smith preaches — is that it’s there’s a lot to learn from week to week. I said going into last season that if I could end it as a better quarterback than I started, it will be a successful year. That hasn’t changed in Year 2. There have been some ups and downs, but I’m standing here as a better quarterback than when I started the season.”
Understand: Nobody associated with the Falcons is even close to deciding Matt Ryan isn’t the real deal. Indeed, if this is as bad as it gets with Ryan as QB, then this franchise is in not just for two winning seasons in succession but five or 10. But the convenient point of comparison for Ryan raters entering 2009 was Peyton Manning. What if he turns out to be Eli Manning instead? Would that be enough?
And I say, “Heck, yeah.” At last check, Eli Manning has won just as many Super Bowls as his older sibling. If Matt Ryan wins just one Super Bowl for the franchise that hasn’t yet posted consecutive winning seasons, he’ll be worth every penny of that $72 million.