Fair’s fair. If we criticize Matt Ryan for not throwing the best deep ball and for authoring a tepid start to this season — and we have on both counts — we must also say this: The guy’s got it going now. (Maybe not on the deep pass, but on everything else.)
Matt Ryan through the first seven games of 2011: Nine touchdown passes, eight interceptions, a yards-per-pass average of 6.68 and a 79.5 passer rating.
Matt Ryan through the next seven games of 2011: Seventeen touchdown passes, four interceptions, a yards-per-pass average of 7.96 and a 101.5 passer rating.
It’s not as if Ryan is throwing more, or even more accurately. His totals for attempts and completions from those first seven games to the past seven are almost identical. What’s different if the effect. By whatever means — slightly deeper throws, more yards-after-catch — the Falcons have become more pass-productive.
Numbers geeks insist the single most important stat in football is yards per attempt, and through seven games the Falcons’ YPA was pedestrian. Now it meets NFL requirements. Through seven games Ryan hadn’t had much of a season, but he’s having one now. He’s on pace to set personal bests for yardage and touchdowns, and he’s 0.5 off his best seasonal passer rating.
In sum, the chilliness of Matty Ice has yielded to a warming trend. We nitpick the guy to shreds — I’m as guilty as anyone — but in the carping we sometimes miss the bigger picture.
Is Ryan among the NFL’s five best quarterbacks? No. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning comprise a front four unto themselves, and Ben Roethlisberger’s two Super Bowl rings make him No. 5.
Is Ryan among the NFL’s 10 best quarterbacks? Absolutely. Behind the top five, I’d put him in the second tier of four more or less alongside Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco. (Who fills out the top 10? Maybe Tony Romo. Maybe Matt Schaub or Matthew Stafford. Maybe, in a different year, Michael Vick.)
Here are the other salient numbers regarding Ryan — 42-20. That’s the Falcons’ record in games he has started. That’s a winning percentage of .677, and it puts him in high company. Brady and Roethelisberger have won at a higher rate, and so has Rodgers, if barely. (He was 44-21 entering Sunday’s game.) But that .667 beats the great Peyton Manning’s career winning percentage, which is .661.
And here you’re saying: Peyton’s career record was skewed by the 3-13 of his rookie season. That’s true, but Ryan was drafted by a team that had gone 4-12 the year before and was working under a new coach. The 2008 Falcons were a prime candidate to go 3-13, but their new quarterback didn’t let them. The 2008 Falcons went 11-5 instead and made the playoffs, and they haven’t had a losing season under Ryan (or Mike Smith).
In a weird way, Ryan’s rookie season has jaundiced our view. If he was that good that soon, we all wondered, how much better would he be given another couple of years? We’ve gotten our answer: Not all that much better. He was tough and polished from the start, and he’s tough and polished now. His completion percentage is actually slightly lower in Year 4 than in Year 1, and so is his yards-per-attempt. But he’s still winning, and as Smith noted after the Minnesota game: “That’s the only number that matters for a quarterback.”
A few weeks ago Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated examined the career path of four NFL quarterbacks who had early success — Ryan, Flacco, Mark Sanchez of the Jets and Josh Freeman of the Buccaneers — and wondered if, because they played in sophisticated college offenses, they arrived in the NFL “with less room to grow.” Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons’ general manager, offered Trotter this rather fascinating quote:
There are some very valid levels below that elite [quarterback] level that can allow organizations to be successful and make runs at Super Bowls. Everyone needs to understand that … They don’t have to necessarily [have] the elite quarterback of the league to be successful as a team.
Some might interpret that as Dimitroff saying the man he drafted with his first pick as GM will never be as good as Rodgers or Brees or Brady or Peyton M., but his greater point was: Does it matter? Eli Manning has won as many Super Bowls as his big brother. Brad Johnson won as many Super Bowls as Brett Favre. The key question to ask of an NFL quarterback: Can this guy win a championship?
The Falcons have Matt Ryan. He might not be the best there is, but he’s plenty good enough. He can win a championship. He’ll win a playoff game, and maybe more than one, next month.
By Mark Bradley