Boy, it feels good to be right. It’s pretty rare that I like to get up on my soap box on a particular topic, but I’ve stood up there a few times in defense of Matt Ryan, and now I’m jumping up again to do a bit of crowing.
In November of 2015 I wrote a column lamenting the short-sighted fans who wanted him gone. After a 5-0 start to the season, the young team with a first-year head coach was exposed. A brutally bad offensive line and a litany of other issues helped tank the team as it finished 8-8. Ryan had arguably the worst season of his career. They seemed to not realize that, even at his worst, he’s still one of the best. Battered and bruised, he battled through. He hasn’t missed a game since 2009. He still posted 4,591 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Those same fans wanting to toss Ryan on the scrapheap were proudly chanting “M-V-P” on Saturday as he dissected the vaunted Seahawks defense. What a difference a year makes. Ryan may have moved past it, but I’m still a bit salty about those fair-weather supporters.
The story isn’t over yet, but he sure has written a thriller in 2016. He ranks first in QB rating, first in yards per attempt, second in touchdowns, second in yards, and third in completion percentage. He was voted First Team All-Pro. He’s the presumed MVP of the entire league. A season for the ages.
It hasn’t been all Ryan padding his stats either. It’s been a balanced attack that leads the league in points per game by a healthy margin. He could have even bigger numbers, but Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman give them a dangerous threat in the running game, especially in the red zone. Ryan spreads the ball around, not even needing to lean on Julio Jones, throwing a touchdown pass to 13 different receivers.
Even with accolades starting to roll in, it’s still hard not to feel like a lot of it is done begrudgingly from the national media. Look no further than ESPN who posted a front page column hours after the Seahawk beatdown changing the conversation from Ryan’s career playoff record to the need to win a championship to truly belong. My favorite part? They couldn’t even get through the first paragraph without an egregious oversight.
“It took you nine years to get this far. In a week, you’ll play in your first NFC Championship Game,” says Kevin Seifert in his column directed at Ryan. Wrong. He’s been there before back when they were still saying he couldn’t win in the playoffs. The comment section rightfully blasted Seifert for the oversight (one I’m sure they would never make about their golden boy, Aaron Rodgers), and it was corrected with no mention of their error. The national media rarely pays attention to the Falcons, so I guess they figured no one would notice.
While they are hailing Rodgers as unstoppable right now, they’ve been glossing over the fact that Ryan has been just as good. After Rodgers helped dig a big hole for the Packers with poor early season play, he turned it around as they’ve ripped off eight straight wins. Ryan and the Falcons are 6-1 over that same stretch, yet you’d think they were playing .500 ball.
The Champion litmus test shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all definer for quarterbacks either. Trent Dilfer and Joe Flacco both have Super Bowl rings thanks to epically-talented defenses. Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts, and so many other QB legends do not. If you can find me one person who says they would rather have either of those two Ravens quarterbacks over any of those Hall of Famers, I can find you a liar.
In the spirit of fairness, I will admit one place where I was clearly wrong. Though I didn’t feel like being bombastic enough about it to put it in a column, if you had asked me this time last year I would’ve gladly ranted about what an awful offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was and that he needed to go. Clearly something started clicking. Now Shanahan could well be on his way to becoming a head coach.
I think one of the most remarkable things about this season is that it really shines a light on how important and undervalued the position of center is. While most of the rest of the offense stayed the same from 2015, GM Thomas Dimitroff opened up the coffers for All-Pro Alex Mack. I like to think I know the game pretty well, but I would not have expected one spot to mean so much. Mack perhaps has had the biggest impact of any free agent signing in the entire league. In 2015, the Falcons totaled 5,985 yards and 21.2 points per game, allowing 34 sacks. This year, they piled up 6,653 yards, averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game, and allowed just 19 sacks. Mack is the only new starter. Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Chris Chester, and Ryan Schraeder are all in the same places.
Now, Ryan has the Falcons back on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth. It’s the underappreciated, boring QB who doesn’t do commercials against gunslinger the media loves to swoon over in between commercial breaks littered with his smirking face. I’m confident Ryan will win out, but, even if he doesn’t, he’s done more than enough to silence the critics. They’ll still try to talk down on him and the Falcons because they’ll never be a media darling, and it really doesn’t matter. The ones that really love Ryan know he belongs in the discussion of the game’s best today. We already knew it. To all of you newfound fans, welcome to the Fan Club. What took you so long?