Today we offer the 10th annual installment in that Atlanta-based series, “What’s Wrong with Matt Ryan?” Most every year, the answer has been: Nothing much. It might well be the same this time, meaning that in six days or six weeks we’ll feel, yet again, silly for having said anything.
Still, these are facts: Through five games, the reigning NFL MVP has thrown as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes. He’s on pace – not that either pace is apt to hold – for 19.2 of each. MVP Ryan’s ratio was seven interceptions against 38 TDs. His performance was the chief reason the 2016 Falcons reached and nearly won the Super Bowl. If the 2017 team is to do anything of note (and it should), he’ll again need to be first among equals.
Nine seasons plus five games constitute a substantial sample size. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that Ryan is never less than a very good quarterback. But his breakthrough came in Year 9, which is late for a very good player to stamp himself as utterly great. Chances were, he’d had a career year. Which isn’t to say he’ll go from MVP to the slag heap. He could/should have many more excellent seasons. Just not another like that.
The story of last season was that Ryan and Kyle Shanahan became a symbiotic entity. (Remember when we, by which I absolutely mean “me,” insisted such a pairing was doomed to fail?) Ryan had done surpassing work under Mike Mularkey, who protected the rookie and turned him into a franchise quarterback. He grew under Dirk Koetter, who allowed him to do even more. After a halting first season together, Shanahan lifted Ryan to a higher plane. Then Shanahan left.
Until the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51, no offensive coordinator could have been better than Shanahan was last season. His replacement was Steve Sarkisian, who had called plays for one game since he was fired as USC’s head coach in October 2015 and who had never been an NFL coordinator. The problem to date: Sarkisian’s Falcons look good moving up and down the field, less good when it comes to scoring touchdowns. (That happened with Shanahan in Year 1 here, you’ll recall.)
When the field shrinks, the Falcons lose their spacing – it’s a basketball term, but you get the drift – and rhythm. They’ve scored three second-half offensive touchdowns, one being the Austin Hooper 88-yarder against busted coverage in Chicago, another being the 40-yard catch and run by Taylor Gabriel in Detroit. Sarkisian is still in feeling-out mode, which is understandable, but when a team that averaged 33.8 points over 16 games last season musters 34 aggregate points in consecutive losses against middling competition, understanding can yield to immediacy. As in, “We need to be better NOW.”
Sarkisian worked the first four games, only one of which was a loss, from the sideline. He moved upstairs at Dan Quinn’s request against Miami, a game in which the Falcons were shut out in the second half. Their final play saw Ryan throw an interception with his team in range of a tying field goal. Yes, the ball was batted from Hooper’s grasp – Quinn said Monday that Hooper should have fought harder – but was that a risk Ryan needed to take on first-and-10 from the Miami 26? Throwing into double coverage in the expectation that a second-year tight end would haul it down?
It’s one thing if the double-teamed receiver is Julio Jones, who can catch anything. This wasn't. Risk/reward time: Was trying to squeeze a pass to a tight end – on first down, we say again – worth throwing away an almost certain tying field goal? Quinn said afterward that his team’s mindset was to play to win, which is great. Unless you throw an interception and lose, which his team did.
If there’s a knock on Ryan – this goes back to Boston College, where he threw 19 interceptions in 14 games his senior year – it’s that Matty Ice sometimes gets a wild hair. Remember the forced pass 10 seconds before halftime that Green Bay’s Tramon Williams snatched to trigger a playoff blowout? Or the throw-to-nobody at Wembley the day that the Falcons blew a 21-0 lead?
There came another example two Sundays ago. Jones and Mohamed Sanu had gotten hurt. The Falcons were doing nothing against Buffalo. On second-and-1 – prime time to throw long – Ryan threw long. His target was Gabriel, who’s 5-foot-8. He was covered by Micah Hyde, who’s 6-foot. The pass was underthrown. Hyde outjumped Gabriel. You could say, “A long interception is the same as a punt.” Maybe, but you don’t punt on second-and-1.
As placid as Ryan usually seems, you can tell when he’s uncomfortable. It was that way toward the end of Year 1 with Shanahan – those red-zone turnovers! – and it appears that way now. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady can thrive with any receivers and without much of a running game. Ryan might well be the league’s third-best quarterback, but he’s not Rodgers or Brady. He needs good receivers making plays downfield. He needs a thriving running game. This isn’t so much a criticism – what quarterback doesn’t benefit from gifted teammates? – as an observation.
Rodgers and Brady can win games by themselves. It’s when Ryan feels the need to create something from nothing that he’s at his worst. (That’s speaking comparatively. The worst of Ryan trumps the best of many quarterbacks.) His leading statistical indicators remain solid. He’s fifth in yards per pass, ninth in completion percentage. He’s 10th in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. And yes, four of his six interceptions have been deflected. But he has half as many touchdown passes as he did through five games last season, and his last 300-yard game was the opener in Chicago.
Under Sarkisian, the Falcons have yet to strike a run/pass balance. They haven’t incorporated the great Julio in a way commensurate to his greatness. The offensive line hasn’t been as sturdy, and last season we saw what Ryan could do behind a first-rate line. (Be MVP, that’s what.) Bottom line, though: The new OC hasn’t maximized his quarterback, which is Job 1 for every offensive coordinator.
The season has 11 games to run. There’s time for this to work. (Again: It took Shanahan a year.) But the reason we’ve been discussing Ryan for a decade is because he’s the most important Falcon. He was tremendous last season. For whatever reason, he hasn’t been quite as good this time. Neither has his team, and that’s no coincidence.
When you’re the reigning MVP of the reigning NFC champs, you're not one of the guys. By definition, you’re The Guy. To be the team they could/should be, the Falcons must find a way to make Matt Ryan great again.