Maybe it’s time to have a frank and honest discussion about Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
It’s worth discussing thanks to Ryan’s interception thrown to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan during practice this week sparked a firestorm of memes and jokes on social media this past week.
The team has since explained that Ryan’s pick was used as a teaching moment for rookie tight end Austin Hooper in regards to adjusting his routes to deal with the more complex coverages he’ll see at the NFL level. But given the high number of turnovers that Ryan committed last year, what amounted to a fairly mundane practice rep became a lightning rod moment for many of Ryan’s harshest critics.
To be clear, I think as often it is the case when it comes to NFL quarterbacks, Ryan gets a blend of both too much criticism and not enough at times. Depending on the circumstances, people have a tendency to go overboard one way or the other.
I believe there are certain aspects of Ryan’s career and performances that indeed deserve a bit more criticism and scrutiny, but I also think there are many times Ryan takes heat for things that he shouldn’t.
One area where Ryan often gets a bit too much credit is when his fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives are acclaimed as evidence to why Ryan rates among the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
This shouldn’t suggest that Ryan is somehow a “fraud” or that he doesn’t deserve credit for his performances in the clutch, but some context should be added before anybody gets too carried away when extolling the virtues of the Falcons quarterback in crunch time.
Ryan’s Fourth-Quarter Comebacks Overstated
According to Pro Football Reference Ryan has 24 fourth-quarter comebacks, which ranks near the top of the league especially considering that Ryan hasn’t played as long as many that are ranked ahead of him.
Context is added however when one realizes that 17 of those comebacks came in games where the score was tied or the Falcons held a lead at halftime.
That’s noteworthy because it means that more often than not, those were games where the Falcons were successfully able to control a large portion of the early game, then lost their lead at some point in the latter part of the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter, only to rally and retake the lead late to pull out the victory.
The Falcons’ notorious tendency to struggle in the third quarters of games has caused the frustration of many fans over the years and it’s why one shouldn’t be too quick to laud Ryan and the Falcons for the high number of comebacks.
However that also shouldn’t completely delegitimize the fact that the team did in fact manage to pull it together in the end to get those wins. But it does somewhat ruin the image of a team rallying from impossible odds that is often conjured when people speak of fourth-quarter comebacks.
In Ryan’s fourth-quarter comebacks, the team rarely had to overcome massive deficits. Only three times in the sample of 24 games did the Falcons find themselves down by more than a single score (or eight points) at halftime.
Six times the Falcons found themselves in a position where they were forced to have to overcome a deficit of two or more scores in the second half, but twice within those instances they were able to retake the lead with at least 11 minutes left to go in the fourth quarter.
Falcons Routinely Struggle to Play From Behind
The Falcons just haven’t been a great team win it comes to playing from behind. In games where they found themselves down two scores (9-16 points) at halftime, their record is 3-18 since 2008. In games in which the deficit is three scores (17 or more points), that record is 0-6.
When facing deficits after three quarters, those records are even bleaker. Since 2008, the Falcons are 2-10 when down two scores entering the fourth quarter and 0-12 in games down three scores.
Even when reducing the third-quarter deficit even further to four to eight points, the team’s record is still an underwhelming 4-12 over the past eight seasons. Only when the deficit becomes a field goal or less (one to three points) after the three quarters, do the Falcons look competitive again with a 7-6 record in such instances.
At face value, those records stand in stark contrast to the image that the team is somehow able to often engineer valiant comebacks in the clutch.
But to be fair to both the Falcons and their quarterback, it’s likely that if all teams and quarterbacks were scrutinized to the same degree, most fourth-quarter comeback stats would be similarly undermined.
Rather than an image of the resilient underdog when Ryan’s “clutch” statistics are cited, it instead should be that of calm persistence. Instead of being a team that regularly overcomes devastating odds, the Falcons routinely are a team that don’t let wins slip from their grasp. If they’re up and they lag a bit in the second half, then one can be relatively confident that the team is going to find a way to hold on.
In games in which the Falcons held a two-score lead at halftime, the team is 16-1 since 2008. In three-score games, their record is 19-1. When holding a two-score lead at the end of the third quarter, the Falcons are 10-1 and that turns into 19-0 when the lead is three scores.
That is suggestive of a certain kind of resilience, just not the kind that is more readily portrayed by embellished fourth-quarter comeback numbers.
Ryan’s Turnovers Have Been Problematic in January
Yet despite context adding a bit more scrutiny to Ryan’s oft-cited fourth-quarter comebacks, an area where Ryan receives too much denigration comes in the form of his oft-criticized playoff record.
It’s definitely fair to say that Ryan hasn’t played his best football in the postseason over the course of his eight-year career. But it’s also unfair to suggest that he himself is the primary factor holding the Falcons back from having more than one playoff win since 2008.
Yes, Ryan has turned the ball over too many times in the postseason. His career interception rate in five playoff appearances is 3.7 percent. To put that in better context, if Ryan had thrown interceptions at that same rate in 2015, he would have wound up with 23 picks instead of the 16 he did throw.
But to be fair, interception rates tend to increase in January largely due to the increased level in competition. Over the past decade (2006-15) the average interception rate for all NFL teams in the postseason is 2.9 percent. Those same teams throw picks during the regular season at a rate of 2.3 percent.
What that difference amounts to is about one more interception thrown in the postseason for every 194 pass attempts, which works out to be about one more pick for every 2.7 games’ worth of throws.
But it’s clear that Ryan’s increased rate of turnovers in the postseason versus the regular season is much higher than the norm when compared to the league average. Yet it isn’t fair to conclude that is all on Ryan, simply because he’s lacked an ideal supporting cast here in Atlanta.
Also given Ryan’s relative youth during his early postseason appearances, throwing a high rate of interceptions is a bit more forgivable. At least compared to 36 other passers over the past 20 years that attempted at least 50 passes in the postseason during their first five years in the league, Ryan’s interception rate is actually only slightly below the average of 3.4 percent.
It’s also worth noting that Ryan’s passer rating of 85.2 during the postseason in his first five seasons is 10th best among those 36 aforementioned qualifiers. Of the nine ahead of him, seven of them have played in a Super Bowl, which suggests Ryan’s overall performance is relatively in good company.
Falcons’ Supporting Cast Deficiencies Start With Run Game
But jumping back to the question of the supporting cast, it’s obvious that the supporting cast around Ryan hasn’t been so poor that it has prevented the team from reaching the postseason four times over the past eight seasons. Which begs the question over whether the idea that Ryan isn’t getting enough help is greatly exaggerated.
Again, discussing Ryan’s supporting cast isn’t meant to absolve him of blame. His relatively high rate of turnovers certainly contributes to the Falcons’ many playoff losses. But a strong argument could made that Ryan’s mistakes have been far more problematic for the Falcons over the years than they have been for other teams’ quarterbacks because of an insufficient supporting cast.
First let’s look at the Falcons running game by going back and looking at the team’s ability to run the ball in Ryan’s five postseason performances:
Falcons Postseason Run Success (2008-12)
I’ve included success rate because I consider it a more accurate way of measuring run efficiency than yards per carry given how the latter can be inflated by long runs.
For example in the Falcons sole postseason win under Ryan against the Seattle Seahawks in January 2013, they had a pair of long runs by Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael Turner for 45 and 33 yards, respectively. Their production blossomed to an impressive 6.4 yards per carry, but on the other 24 runs they had that game, they averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. It doesn’t mean those two runs shouldn’t count, but you can see how a small amount of runs greatly skew the average.
Regardless of the metric you use, the Falcons’ running game has been insufficient in the postseason under Ryan. Without a balanced attack, it puts more pressure on quarterback to have to carry the offense. That makes him more susceptible to forcing a few more throws than usual, which can lead to turnovers.
Also throw in the fact that the Falcons routinely struggle to generate explosive plays in the postseason, meaning that if/when Ryan does throw a pick and the team subsequently finds itself behind the eight ball, it’s hard-pressed to climb out of that hole.
Big Plays Matter in Postseason
I’ve noticed a trend over the years in regards to teams that typically wind up competing in the Super Bowl tend to also be teams that are good at generating big plays via the air.
Looking at the rate of passes that generate 20 or more yards versus the number of attempts, most of the teams that have gone on to compete for the ultimate prize in professional football were also teams that were generated more explosive passes during the regular season.
In the following table, you can see the rankings of the eventual Super Bowl winners and losers in terms of their rate of explosive passes per attempt in comparison to where the Falcons ranked in those years:
Postseason Big-Play Pass RankingsShows rankings and ratings of Super Bowl teams and the Atlanta Falcons based on the number of big-play (20+ yard) passes per attempt during the regular season of the corresponding year.
|Year||Super Bowl Winner||Rank||Pct.||Super Bowl Loser||Rank||Pct.||Falcons||Rank||Pct.|
|2011||NY Giants||9||11.4%||New England||7||11.8%||Atlanta||18||9.4%|
Even though the past two Super Bowl winners in the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos were decidedly not explosive during the regular season, both teams were very effective during the postseason.
The 2015 Broncos ranked second behind only the Steelers among AFC teams last January in terms of generating explosive pass plays during their three postseason games.
While the 2014 Patriots’ explosive pass rate of 8.8 percent in a vacuum was unexceptional, it was by far the best margin for an AFC team during that season’s postseason.
In recent years, there seems to be a clear trend for the teams that are successful at generating a higher percent of big plays via the air tend to make it to the Super Bowl. Each of the past four Super Bowl contenders have ranked either first or second within their conference in terms of postseason explosive passing rate, with one exception: the 2013 Denver Broncos.
Four other AFC playoff teams fared better than the Broncos that year, yet their poor showing was partially due to a very poor performance in the Super Bowl when the Seahawks defense really put the clamps on them. In their two previous postseason games prior to the big game, the 2013 Broncos team was generating big passing plays at a rate of 10.1 percent, the same as their regular season rate.
So it is probably not a coincidence that the year the Falcons won their only playoff game under Ryan and nearly won a second that could have gotten them the Super Bowl, they were only trailing the eventual conference Champion San Francisco 49ers as the postseason’s most explosive passing offense in the NFC.
The Falcons gained 20 or more yards on 11.7 percent of their passes in 2012, a huge improvement from the regular-season rate of 7.5 percent. Had they performed at that higher rate throughout the regular season, they would have finished as the fourth-most explosive passing team in the league that season.
I’ve explained in the past why explosiveness matters on offense because it’s the best way to score points and the obviously object of the game is to outscore your opponents. Therefore it’s also the best way to attack the higher caliber of defenses typically faced in January since it’s harder to string together longer drives against them.
This is why the Falcons traded up to get Julio Jones in 2011. And whether the benefits of that move outweigh the costs is something that can be debated forever, it’s very clear that the idea behind the move made perfect sense.
In three playoff outings prior to the Jones trade, the Falcons had generated just six plays of 20 or more yards on 110 pass attempts. That rate of 5.5 percent ranked 20th among 23 teams that participated in the playoffs from 2008 through 2010.
Couple that with a defense that struggled to get stops, as the Falcons ranked 22nd out of 26 teams in terms of third-down defense during the postseason from 2008 through 2012, and it’s easier to understand that it is not entirely due to quarterbacks’ shortcomings that the Falcons only managed one postseason win in the Ryan era.
Not So Final Verdict: Ryan is a Frontrunner
In order for the Falcons to play better in the postseason, in addition to Ryan limiting his turnovers the team also needs to find more offensive balance with a more effective ground game. Secondly, the team needs to be much more effective when it comes to getting yardage in chunks because that will allow them to put more points on the scoreboard. And thirdly, the defense has to be far stingier than it has been when it comes to stopping opposing offenses in the postseason.
The suggestion that the Falcons lack of postseason success largely rests at Ryan’s feet is exaggerated because it clearly ignores those three other key components to overall team success. And until the Falcons show substantial improvement in those other three areas, there’s no reason to single out Ryan as holding back the team over any of those issues.
Whether it’s demystifying his “clutch” performances or tempering his contributions to the team’s postseason disappointment, there should be a bit more of a nuanced portrait of Ryan.
He’s not as problematic as many claim nor is he completely inculpable to the disappointing finishes that the Falcons have experienced over the past eight season.
From the evidence gathered here, one could potentially label Ryan as a bit of a “frontrunner.” When things are going well, he’s more than capable of getting the job done. But in the event of some adversity, he certainly leaves a bit to be desired.
That’s corroborated by the fact that roughly two-thirds of Ryan’s fourth-quarter comebacks occur in games where the Falcons lost a halftime or third-quarter lead.
It’s also indicated by the reality that Ryan alone cannot carry the Falcons to greater postseason success without significantly more contributions from his supporting cast.
Quinn Seeks to Build Better Falcons Team Around Ryan
It’s a positive that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and his regime appear to be looking to address many of these issues. Like him or not, Shanahan is attempting to install a balanced offense with a heavier emphasis on running the football that hasn’t been seen in Atlanta since the heyday of Turner. That in turn is expected to open up big-play opportunities on play action, which the Falcons will hope they can exploit to a greater degree than they have in the past.
That should also help somewhat mitigate the team’s tendency to lose third-quarter leads if they can still effectively control the clock with their ground game and still be able to strike quickly through the air if need be.
But even more importantly, Quinn’s work to improve the defensive performances will help the team not be so quick to squander second-half leads and should also make them more competitive in the postseason.
Given Ryan’s postseason struggles, it might be fair to say that in any given playoff game the Falcons won’t necessarily have the best quarterback on the field. Thus it becomes more important that their defense can do its best to affect the opposing team’s quarterback. The solution to that problem is fairly obvious in terms of improving the Falcons pass rush.
A late roster addition like defensive end Dwight Freeney is certainly a step in the right direction. While it remains to be seen if the Falcons are poised to make the playoffs in 2016, the addition of an established, veteran pass-rusher certainly won’t hurt their chances.
Yet even should Freeney bolster the team this year, he’s only a short-term fix. Continued investments in the pass rush and the defense must still be made in the future.
There’s certainly optimism that the Falcons are making significant strides towards building the sort of the team that can better support Ryan, but it also should be understood that more construction is required.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and in this case the metaphorical “Eternal City” embodied in Atlanta might take a few more years before development comes to a close.
Which means that between now and then, Ryan is likely to continue to be a lightning rod for criticism that will involve impassioned debates online, through the air waves and beside water coolers. My hope is that such disputes won’t automatically gravitate to either end of the spectrum, one suggesting Ryan is totally liable for most of the team’s shortcomings and the other exonerating him from any blame.
Even though I’ve tried to take a balance approach in this frank and honest discussion of Ryan’s merits and faults, it still remains true that people can cherry pick whichever stats and evidence they want to make any argument they deem.
But it’s far too reductive at this point to overwhelming favor one side of the argument versus the other. Ryan certainly needs to play better but he also needs his teammates to do so as well.
From my perspective, Ryan has never played with a top-notch defense during his time in Atlanta. He’s played with a good running game and also has had explosive weapons to throw to in the passing game, but never have both elements truly coincided for the Falcons.
Quinn’s intentions appear to be guiding the team towards having all three elements occur simultaneously in Atlanta. Whether he’s successful in the execution of those intentions remains to be seen.
But until he is, there is always going to be questions in regards to settling the debate on Matt Ryan.