Pardon me if I’m repeating myself, but it feels like I’ve been here before. Whether it’s been here in a column or in discussions with other football fans, I keep finding myself defending Matt Ryan. Frankly, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why he’s so underappreciated by his own fan base. Up in Green Bay, they think Aaron Rodgers walks on water (and, hey, even he’s prone to down stretches that have Packer fans questioning his focus). Tom Brady could probably run for Mayor in Boston (even if he’s run afoul of the rules). In Atlanta, they want to throw Ryan out with the bathwater.
I’ll admit, Ryan has been far from perfect at times this year. The recent slide has been depressing, but he’s not the only one making mistakes; he just happens to be the face of the team. He presses at times, tries to do too much, and throws occasional bad interceptions, but it’s unfair to not look at the whole team picture. By any measure, statistical or win-loss record, he still ranks as one of the game’s better signal callers. He’s helped build expectations for the team higher than they should have been because he’s capable of covering up some of the team’s other shortcomings. The hot start by the team threw everyone’s perceptions of the squad way out of proportion. They just aren’t that good yet.
Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman can make up for a lot of deficiencies, but not all of them. If I had to pick the biggest reason for the backslide, it would be the continuously underwhelming play of the offensive line. General manager Thomas Dimitroff’s biggest failure has been his inability to build a competitive line on either side of the ball.
As has been the case for several years, the defensive line fails to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, though they are much improved against the run this year. Offensively, installing a zone-blocking scheme masks a lot of the line’s inadequacies. It has made Freeman into one of the game’s top weapons. Still, the number of times that the back gets hit two yards in the backfield is far too frequent.
In pass protection, they have looked helpless far too often. Early in a series, when running the ball is still a viable option, defenses have to respect that and lay back a bit. If it’s an obvious pass situation, you better watch out. Go back and watch the fourth quarter of any recent game. Ryan can’t even finish a simple three-step drop without having a defensive lineman or two (or three) right in his lap.
I still think Jake Matthews could turn into a good left tackle, but he’s not there yet, and he’s the best we’ve got. Ryan Schrader is a small-college talent who often plays like one. Our centers can’t even seem to get a shotgun snap right. Chris Chester has been serviceable at right guard. Left guard Andy Levitre stepped in as a starter immediately for the Falcons, which must mean he’s good, right? Only problem with that is he was so bad for a two-win Titans team last year that he was about to get thrown to the curb when the Falcons swooped in and traded for him. It’s a largely patchwork unit trying to protect the franchise’s biggest investment.
If you want to get rid of Matt Ryan, realistically, who do you think we could get? If I was ranking the starting quarterbacks in the league, I would put Ryan at number 10 right now in a batch where you could easily move him up or down a couple spots. You probably wouldn’t find too much debate ranking Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees among the really elite ones. Then you’d have that next batch of guys with Russell Wilson, Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers, and others. At worst, you’d still have to put Matt Ryan higher than the Matt Stafford and Ryan Tannehill-types because he’s actually had a prolonged period of success. How many catches do you think Julio Jones would haul in with Sam Bradford or Josh McCown throwing to him? Ask Larry Fitzgerald what it was like to waste his prime with a below-average quarterback merry-go-round overthrowing him for years.
One of my favorite criticisms about Matt Ryan is he’s not a “Super Bowl quarterback.” That is one of the most shortsighted arguments I’ve heard. You know he’s one of just 22 players on the field at any given time, right? Do you think we have a Super Bowl-level defense? I surely don’t. We don’t even have a Wild Card-level offensive line. A lot has to go right for a quarterback to get a shot at being a Super Bowl quarterback.
You know who was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback? Trent Dilfer. If you would rather have Trent Dilfer, in his prime or any time, over Matt Ryan, please please please get yourself hired as the Saints’ GM. It would make life a lot easier for the Falcons. Chris Chandler is still the only quarterback in franchise history to reach a Super Bowl, and he had plenty of detractors when he was here.
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a quarterback who got his team to the Super Bowl without at least an above-average defense and an offensive line that can get out of its own way. Joe Flacco has a ring, and I don’t think anyone thinks he’s a world beater. Colin Kaepernick had a lot of pundits thinking he was going to revolutionize the NFL when he had the league’s best defense to help him out. Now he can’t even keep a starting job when he’s forced to win games on his own. Ryan has the benefit of none of that.
And one more prime example of the unfairness of the Super Bowl quarterback argument. How about Dan Marino? He never won one, but he’s undoubtedly an all-time great. If you had the choice, would you rather have Mark Rypien and his Lombardi Trophy under center or Dan Marino?
I would love it if Matt Ryan were above reproach in his play this year, and he’s not, but he’s doing far better than a lot of his own “fans” seem to notice. Football is unquestionably a team sport, and he’s carried way more than his own weight for some time. If you don’t think Matt Ryan is good enough, please go jump on the bandwagon on any of the dozen or so teams that would kill to have him under center. I’ll gladly back him and hope that we can finally surround him with enough talent to take advantage of his skills. We’ve got a few pieces in place to turn into a contender, don’t beg to throw away the biggest one.