Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. When one thinks of elite NFL quarterbacks, these four individuals come to mind. They may be getting some company in the form of Matt Ryan.
While other great quarterbacks such as Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Tony Romo are mentioned in the same proverbial breath of being great, they are not quite considered by many as “elite”, thanks to a truly breakthrough NFL MVP-caliber season.
To disclose, I have never been a fan of Ryan, and I have stated that one many occasions here in this magazine here, and here, where I often considered him a glorified NFC version of Andy Dalton, who would put up numbers in the regular season, but disappear in the post-season. Not to say that I’ve been one of Matty Ice’s harshest detractors, but I was never sold on him as a “elite” QB and definitely not on the same level of Brady, Manning, Rodgers or Brees.
That all changed this season.
Prior to the playoffs, Ryan was 1-4, and most notably had another brilliant regular season in compiling the league’s third-best completion percentage (69.9), second-most passing yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38) and the best QBR of 83, so naturally I’ve seen this movie before and was already familiar with the ending, but something seemed DIFFERENT about this latest Matt Ryan sequel.
In what has been a career year in touchdown passes, passing yards, career low in interceptions (7) and a career best QB passer rating of 117.1, Ryan took things to the next level in the playoffs.
Thanks to offseason infusion of talent—most notably from Cleveland—in the form of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and speedster in wide receiver Taylor Gabriel and former Cincinnati Bengal wide out Mohamed Sanu, this is THE Ryan I envisioned coming out of Boston College in running an up-tempo and explosive offense capable of shredding opposing defenses at will and giving defensive coordinators nightmares.
While he had the likes of Stephen Jackson and Michael Turner early in his career, Ryan having the luxury of handing the ball off to a deadly backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman—whom have combined for 2,482 yards and 24 touchdowns—and that combined with the bevy of weapons on the outside in supafreak (not a typo!) in Julio Jones, the forementioned Sanu, Gabriel and the forementioned Shanahan’s playcalling, has given Ryan the best tools to finally succeed and flourish.
And flourish, has he ever.
In his two wins over recent Super Bowl champion quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and the forementioned Rodgers, Ryan not only balled out, he flat out destroyed BOTH teams handily in leaving no doubt as to why he is belongs in that elite QB brotherhood of present-day quarterbacks.
Against the Seahawks and Packers, Ryan threw for 730 yards and seven touchdowns—with no interceptions—in the Divisional Round and NFC Championship Game. Once expected to make a critical error or making a bad throw, this Ryan looks mature, confident, and most of all, only beginning to entire his prime at the still-youngish age of 31.
Obviously, a lot could change if Shanahan does indeed leave the Falcons for the proverbial cess pool that is the San Francisco 49ers, and that Ryan could regress, but in the case that he doesn’t, then we may have to hold off proclaiming him as a top-tier NFL signal-caller.
Imagine if he beats—perhaps—the greatest quarterback of this generation in Tom Brady down in Houston at #SuperBowlLI, there will be a range of joy and jubiliation felt from the likes of uber-hated NFL commissioner in Roger Goodell, Tom Brady/Bill Belichick Patriot-hate watchers and newborn bandwagon Falcons fans outside of Foxboro.
Yes, Brady is THAT hated outside of New England, and everyone and their proverbial grandmother will be pulling for the Falcons in what is really the rubber match of Tom Brady vs. Roger Goodell with Ryan and the NFC champs standing in as the commissioner’s proxy.
Regardless of the outside politics, Ryan proved his NFL MVP mettle in besting two of the best in the game today, and if he completes the triple crown of beating Brady, there will no longer be a debate about his inclusion into that conversation entirely.