Overrating Matt Ryan: Very Good But Not Great (Not A Franchise QB)

Gerald BallCorrespondent IJanuary 17, 2011

At some point, the national and local media have to tell the truth about this Matt Ryan. When Ryan was drafted No. 3 overall, given a huge contract and made the centerpiece of the Atlanta Falcons franchise, it was on the basis of being everything Michael Vick wasn't.

While this fact is both indisputable and also certainly positive in certain respects (i.e. work ethic, choice of friends and willingness to abide by the law), unfortunately one of the things Michael Vick IS and Matt Ryan ISN'T just happens to be "AN EXCEPTIONAL ATHLETE."

This is not to say Matt Ryan is a bad athlete or a bad quarterback. To the contrary, Ryan is good. Indeed, he is quite good. The issue is in the NFL, and especially in an NFL that has put in all of these passing-game friendly rules changes, making nearly every starting NFL QB is "quite good."

So, the days when guys like Jeff Hostetler, Drew Bledsoe, Mark Rypien, Trent Dilfer and Kerry Collins could take teams to Super Bowls—and in the case of Hostetler, Rypien and Dilfer, win them—are over. If the QB is carrying the load, winning in the playoffs means being great, or at least very good, and Matt Ryan isn't very good—let alone great. This means if the Falcons are going to win a Super Bowl with Ryan, it is only going to happen if they surround him with a dominating supporting cast.

Yet, it seems no one wants to admit this. Why? Because Ryan followed Michael Vick, a high profile dual-threat QB, in Atlanta. So, instead of acknowledging Ryan's limitations (which will be addressed shortly), with regard to Ryan, we keep hearing "no dual threat QB has ever won a Super Bowl", which while true is totally irrelevant to whether RYAN will win a Super Bowl. And if Ryan doesn't win a Super Bowl, how is he any different from Fran Tarkenton, Randall Cunningham or Steve McNair?

To put it another way...the Dallas Cowboys were winless in NFC title games under Danny White. Does the fact it wasn't Vince Evans somehow make it any better? To hear all the people who were up in arms about the failures of Kordell Stewart while ignoring a string of guys like Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell, Jim Miller and Tommy Maddox also held back very talented Steelers teams without anywhere near the controversy (and the similar QBs that have done the same to Chicago and Baltimore teams) is revealing.

But instead of talking about it, we are constantly treated to how "that's the sort of play Michael Vick never made/couldn't make/will never make" from everyone from millionaire national TV analysts to regular guys (and gals) calling into sports talk radio every single time Matt Ryan throws a neat touch pass.

Every single time he reads the defense and makes an audible or adjustment. Every single time he sits in the pocket, goes through his progressions, and throws to the third or fourth option.

And yes, it is true...running QBs like Vick can't do those things, or at least not as well or consistently as can pure prototypical pro-style, dropback passers. But again, that is not the issue. Instead, the issue is whether Matt Ryan can do those things as good as or better than other pro-style prototypical pure dropback passers. And the answer is all available evidence indicates he cannot.

So long as this franchise is built on Matt Ryan, "not being Michael Vick," it isn't going to win playoff games. Instead, being a better QB than the opposing team has is what it will take, and Ryan is not any better than the QBs he will generally face in the playoffs. Before you stammer and sputter with rage, meet the challenge: in what way is he? In what area does Ryan excel?

Intelligence? When compared to Peyton Manning...no.

Accuracy? When compared to Tom Brady...no.

Arm strength? When compared to Eli Manning...no.

Athletic ability? When compared to Ben Roethlisberger...no.

Field vision/decision making/quick release? When compared to Drew Brees...no.

And there is overlap in these categories. Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have more intelligence, are more accurate, are superior in seeing the field, making a decision and getting rid of the football. And it doesn't get better...it gets worse. These are only the active NFL QBs that have won Super Bowls.

When you add some very good QBs that haven't won Super Bowls—a list that includes Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Rodgers, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Matt Cassel, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers—you'd be hard pressed to list exactly what it is that makes Ryan better than ANY of those guys.

Case in point: Aaron Rodgers is more intelligent, more accurate, has a stronger arm, is a better athlete AND is better in the vision/decision/release area.

But wait...there's more. Consider young QBs like Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez. Even right now, Ryan is clearly better than those guys how and why? And if he isn't NOW, then what about when those guys have 50 NFL starts under their belt as Ryan currently has? This can be summarized simply by looking at the other QBs in Ryan's not-too-strong NFC South division (not a lot of tradition or history there...the four teams in that division have four Super Bowl appearances between them).

Drew Brees is incontrovertibly more skilled, and Josh Freeman is easily more talented (taller, stronger arm and more mobile), and yet, despite being three years younger than  Ryan, having had only half as many career starts and playing on a clearly less talented team, he still had a higher QB rating than Ryan this season. So, the folks who are convinced this fellow is saving the Falcons from the failure of dual-threat QBs need to realize he is likely only the third best QB in that division!

None of this information should be shocking. After all, look at Ryan's college career. The very idea he was the No. 3 pick in the draft is puzzling. Yes, he put up good numbers—especially his senior year in Jeff Jagodzinski's wide open offense—but against suspect ACC competition, and even in his senior year, he struggled with interceptions (19). And unless you count minor bowl games (Micron PC, Meineke Car Care, Champs Sports), Ryan never actually won anything at Boston College, not even an ACC title that has been won by the likes of Wake Forest and Georgia Tech (to speak nothing of BCS whipping boy Virginia Tech).

Ryan supporters make the ridiculous claim that Ryan's inability to lead Boston College to anything of consequence was because of some particular dearth of talent at BC, as if Ryan was carrying the program to any level of success that they had. This, of course, is ridiculous. Boston College went 9-3 the year before Matt Ryan got there and 9-5 the year after he left. Ryan's best season at BC? 11-3.

So, this future franchise NFL QB was good for only two extra wins at an established, quality program that has been to bowl games every season since 1998. Yet, to show the extent the media bought into the Matt Ryan hype, his Boston College Eagles were ranked No. 10 in the final polls despite possessing only one victory over a Top 20 team (Virginia Tech, whom they beat in the regular season but lost to in the ACC title game ...lest we forget this same Virginia Tech lost the Orange Bowl to KANSAS that season).

Now compare Ryan's inability to elevate the Boston College program to what Drew Brees did in taking a long-horrible Purdue program and putting them on the map, even winning the Big 10 and taking them to the Rose Bowl. Even better: consider how Ben Roethlisberger led Miami-Ohio to a 13-1 record and a Top 10 ranking...the Redhawks were barely getting to bowl games before and went right back to that since.

Now of course, not all successful NFL QBs necessarily "make" college programs (Jay Cutler and Josh Freeman certainly didn't do so for Vanderbilt and Kansas State, plus Peyton Manning's issues at Tennessee are well known), but when you add Ryan's not-particularly-noteworthy college career to his "good but not great" athletic ability and QB skills, we have to wonder how this guy was ever viewed as a franchise QB in the first place. What was it—what is it—about Matt Ryan that makes anyone think he can, for instance, win a road playoff game by outdueling a perennial Pro Bowl QB?

If it were Aaron Rodgers on the other hand, you would have how he led his college team to their best season in 20 years (and how Cal hasn't done squat since), his dead-eye accuracy, a cannon arm with laser accuracy and quick release that allows him to get the ball anywhere on the field right between the numbers before the defender can react, is actually fast enough as a runner to be a "dual-threat QB" (Rodgers had 356 rushing yards and could have easily had far more if he chose to emphasize that part of his game as opposed to passing for 3,922 yards, and oh yeah, if he wasn't getting hammered with 31 sacks behind a terrible OL) and has put up huge numbers despite an inconsistent (to be kind) running game and a generally bad offensive line.

You can see how a guy like THAT can go on the road in the playoffs and go 31-35 (and this includes throwaways and drops!) for 366 yards and three TDs. Aaron Rodgers is a top flight, franchise-caliber NFL QB, clearly a level above Matt Ryan in ability and skill.

And no, Falcons fans, don't pass off the "it is only his third year, he will get better" excuse, which was being commonly resorted to by Falcons' fans as to why Rodgers so clearly outplayed Ryan in that playoff game. We aren't talking about some QB who ran an option offense for a I-AA school or something. Matt Ryan spent five years at Boston College—which ran an NFL-style offense the entire time he was there—and started 36 college games.

It is true Ryan was touted as "ready to start from day one" when he came into the NFL, but that is only half the story. The other half is scouts regarded Ryan as almost having reached his ceiling...that he was already almost as good as he was ever going to get. When you consider Aaron Rodgers started out his college career at a junior college, only actually started a little over a season and a half before leaving college early for the NFL, and spent three years on the bench.

The truth is Rodgers would only be slightly ahead of Ryan if they had the same ability. Instead, the bulk of the difference between Rodgers and Ryan consists of Rodgers' being a better athlete AND more skilled. Give Rodgers the OL and running game Matt Ryan had, and the Packers would have the best record in the NFL. Any way you slice it, 2 years from now when Ryan is the same age as is Rodgers, Rodgers will still easily be the better QB.

Now as stated earlier, this is not to say that Ryan is a bad QB. Quite the contrary, he is very capable and the Falcons can win a Super Bowl with him. The key to doing so, however, is to cease overstating what they have in the fellow. Since their shocking (not really, the Packers had a worse record, but only due to injuries and playing a much tougher schedule) playoff game exit, the media analysts (who really ought to know better) and not a few fans have been bashing the coaching staff. Their hammering the defense is idiotic ... it was Matt Ryan's turnovers that turned a close game into a rout. But what is really upsetting is the trashing of the head coach and offensive coordinator over their allegedly not running an innovative, aggressive scheme designed to take advantage of whatever great QB prowess that Ryan simply has to possess. Apparently, "not being Michael Vick" HAS to mean that Ryan is capable of running a Mike Martz offense! 

The truth is the Falcons need to do the exact opposite. They must cease viewing Matt Ryan as a franchise QB capable of carrying a team and making the players around him better, and instead start viewing him as a cog—a key cog but still a cog—that can contribute to a winning franchise whose real strength is elsewhere. You can win a Super Bowl that way. Indeed, you can win several.

The key is immediately ceasing to delude themselves as to what they have. This early playoff exit simply has to be a wakeup call. The Falcons already harmed themselves in trading a second-round pick for Tony Gonzalez based on the delusion that Matt Ryan made them this immediate Super Bowl contender. (Guys who were available with that pick? DBs Javier Arenas, Major Wright, Chad Jones, Morgan Burnett and Myron Rolle. DEs Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham and Jason Worilds, DTs Terrance Cody and Mike Neal and LBs Brandon Spikes, Pat Angerer and Sean Lee. And that's just the defense.) Now Gonzalez is likely to retire.

The Falcons simply cannot afford to make more short-term decisions based on the idea Ryan is the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Instead, they need to build this team for the long haul, to acquire as much young talent in the draft and in prudent free-agency moves (signing a 28-year-old non-Pro Bowl-caliber CB in Dunta Robinson to a $57 million contract doesn't qualify but instead is a "win now" move) so that the result will be a team with a lot of strengths and no real weaknesses.

This means constructing a defense similar to what recent Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York (Giants and Jets) and Tampa Bay teams have had as the first priority, and then, a personnel strategy on offense based more on a stable of quality tailbacks and a strong offensive line (both quality and quantity) to block for them instead of piling on pass-catchers.

Yes, the Falcons need to do better at second and third receiver than Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran, and yes, they need to replace Tony Gonzalez. But the fact still remains that even a "greatest show on turf" bunch of pass-catchers in Atlanta would basically be wasted on Ryan, because he isn't going to be able to utilize that type of talent the way a Kurt Warner did. Instead, getting better than Tyson Clabo, Sam Baker and Todd McClure at the three critical OL spots so that Michael Turner—or whoever else the Falcons stick back there—can rush for 1,600 yards at five yards per carry instead of 1,370 yards at 4.1 per carry should be the No. 1 goal of this offense.

Pair a running game like that with a Top 5 defense, then Matt Ryan throwing the ball to Roddy White becomes a key ingredient to the Falcons winning a Super Bowl. So long as it is a key ingredient, then the goal is plausible. But if it is the main ingredient, then it just isn't going to happen.

The Falcons management need to realize what they have in Matt Ryan as quickly as possible so they can start building a team around them that allows them to actually start winning meaningful games and contending for Super Bowls with him, instead of just pretending to. As far as Atlanta Falcons' fans, they also need to realize this so that based on what the Falcons' coaches and front office do, they will know what to expect.


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