A month ago we wondered if Matt Ryan might be the NFL’s MVP. Now we get to spend the next eight months pondering whether Matty Ice might be overhyped. (Google his name and “overrated.” You’ll get the drift.) He has led the Falcons to three consecutive winning seasons — before Ryan arrived, no Atlanta quarterback had managed even two — but twice he has saved his worst for last.
Ryan’s playoff numbers: A total of 385 yards passing; an average of 5.7 yards per pass (which is awful); three touchdowns; four interceptions; two fumbles lost; eight sacks. He was a rookie on the road against Arizona in January 2009, but Saturday he was a fully blooded professional working in the building he has made his own.
Yes, winning in postseason is hard. (Peyton Manning needed six seasons to win his first playoff game; John Elway needed four.) But the magnitude of the loss to Green Bay has forced us to look harder at the 13-3 Falcons, and we cannot excuse Ryan from that examination.
He ranked ninth among NFL quarterbacks this season in yards passing. He was tied for sixth (with the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers) in touchdown passes and was 12th (just behind Michael Vick) in completion percentage. His passer rating of 91.9 slotted him 11th (just behind Peyton Manning, just ahead of Drew Brees). His average of 6.5 yards per pass was 26th best in a 32-team league. Ryan was named to the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster, but his numbers weren’t Pro Bowl caliber.
And yet: Ryan was great on third down — the Falcons ranked third behind New Orleans and New England in conversions — and he engineered six victories when the Falcons trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. And that’s the perplexing part. The Falcons know full well what this quarterback can do, but they take their time getting around to letting him do it.
It’s not that they’re afraid Ryan will mess up: He threw only nine interceptions in 571 passes this season, and those 571 attempts were the sixth-most by any quarterback. It isn’t that he doesn’t get to throw but that he throws to so little effect. Ryan’s longest completion this season was for 46 yards; every regular starting quarterback save Arizona’s Derek Anderson managed a more substantial gain.
About here, I know what some among you are saying: “See! I told you he doesn’t have the arm strength!” Balderdash. His arm meets NFL specifications. And if arm strength were the sole determinant, Jeff George would have been Joe Montana.
Back to Saturday night: Rodgers had seven completions of 20 or more yards; Ryan had two, both to Michael Jenkins. As weird as it sounds, the author of so many winning drives seemed scared to dare — except for the one time when he shouldn’t have, on his fateful final pass of the first half.
There are times — Saturday’s game was the most striking, but it wasn’t the only example — where the famously apt pupil leaves the impression of having studied too hard. At Boston College he was dauntless, but the Falcons have coached much of the flair out of him. That will have to change. Robots don’t win the Super Bowl. Quarterbacks willing to take risks and make plays do.
So: Is Ryan overrated? He is if you deem him one of the league’s best half-dozen quarterbacks. He’s not there yet. (The top six: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Philip Rivers.) But Ryan is among the top 10, and that could/should be good enough.
The more I see of him, the more I go back to the supposition of last season: That Ryan is closer to Eli Manning than to Peyton, that he’s a very good quarterback but not quite a great one. And that’s OK — Eli Manning has a Super Bowl ring of his own. The bottom line is that the Falcons can win a championship with Matt Ryan. They didn’t this time, but plenty of next times remain.
By Mark Bradley