Matt Ryan got paid, and deservedly so. While he may not have the accomplishments that put him on par with the other most highly-paid quarterbacks in the league, it certainly doesn’t make him any less deserving of being in that peer group.
And by accomplishments, we’re talking about playoff wins and Super Bowls.
Now that Ryan is being paid handsomely for his services with the Falcons, more scrutiny is going to come towards him even if he doesn’t feel it. Rightly or wrongly, quarterbacks are largely judged by how many playoff wins and Super Bowl rings they have.
I personally believe those things often get overrated when assessing individual quarterbacks. Postseason success is largely billed as reflective of quarterbacks, but it is in fact reflective of the entire team that he plays on. Teams win games, not necessarily quarterbacks. While quarterbacks are the most important aspect of a team, football is not like basketball where you can be a championship contender by having one transcendent player. Just look at Drew Brees in New Orleans, who by the way had zero playoff wins in his first five seasons (one less than Ryan). Brees has helmed the Saints for seven seasons, and three of those seasons the Saints did not finish with a record above .500. Their lack of success in those seasons was largely because of their poor defensive play which ranked among the ten worst teams in the league in all three seasons. Brees will ultimately be enshrined in Canton for his tenure with the Saints, but it’s clear that even a quarterback of his caliber can’t do it all on his own.
And that’s the point I’m getting to with Ryan. While the Falcons have rewarded Ryan with a resplendent contract, they need to get him more help if they hope that he ultimately will have greater postseason success moving forward.
The Falcons can’t fall into the same trap that other teams have fallen into by thinking the mere presence of a top quarterback Ryan is going to get them to where they want to be. Which of course involves Arthur Blank hoisting a Lombardi Trophy amidst a shower of confetti.
What will become of the 2013 Falcons is already pretty much set in stone. The off-season is over, the team has opened camp. And while they certainly could make a number of moves before the regular season starts that can enhance the team, the proverbial bed has been made.
But for the years beyond 2013, the Falcons are going to have work a little harder to build around Ryan. And many probably scratch their head at that statement due to the presences of players like Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, and Julio Jones. There isn’t a finer trio of receivers in the league, although I’m sure Denver Bronco fans might beg to differ.
But those receivers aren’t going to be around forever. Gonzalez has already indicated that 2013 will be his last season. White may discover 2014 to be his last. And given the potential contract that the Falcons will offer Jones within the next two years, it’s unlikely that there will be much money left over for White.
Bottom line is that Ryan has a five-year deal and his weapons won’t be around for the duration of that. How will the Falcons replace them? Frankly, the chances the Falcons find even one, let alone a pair of receivers that are in the same area codes of Gonzalez and White are very low. Gonzalez is a sure-fire first ballot Canton inductee, and White should at least make a compelling case when he finally hangs things up. Those types of players don’t exactly grow on trees.
So the Falcons can do Ryan a favor and try to build up other areas of the roster while they hope two new elite receivers fall into the laps in the coming years. They’ve already started with some pieces, but it must continue. Their running game and offensive line have been glaring weaknesses for the past two seasons. While Steven Jackson is hopefully the upgrade the running game needs in 2013, he’s only a short-term fix. Jacquizz Rodgers has been an excellent role player for the Falcons, but a player that has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on 151 career carries doesn’t exactly fit the bill as a player that deserves to be considered a viable long-term solution to the running game problem. So it means at some point the Falcons are going to be shopping for another back that Ryan can hand the ball off to and provide more balance to the offense. The Falcons offensive attack is always going to be centered around Ryan’s passing ability, if there was any doubt on that this new contract silenced it. But success on the ground is highly underrated in this day in age. It’s not a coincidence that in 2009 when Brees led the Saints to a title was also the same year that the Saints rushing attack finished in the Top 10 in all major categories. A feat they have yet to repeat in any of the other years of the Brees Era in New Orleans.
The Falcons have shuffled their offensive line this summer, in the hopes it kick starts their ground attack. And while it may be a promising start, it’s not a final solution. One of the drawbacks of the size of Ryan’s contract is that it’s going to make it harder for the Falcons to retain expensive veteran players on their own second contracts over long periods of time. That firmly puts players like left tackle Sam Baker and left guard Justin Blalock on the chopping block in the coming years. While the structure of Baker’s deal likely promises he’ll be around for at least another three years, Blalock has the potential to be a post-June 1 cap casualty starting next year. If either player sees a drop-off in their play, it will be hard for the Falcons to justify their retention given their price tags. Could players like Lamar Holmes and/or Mike Johnson potentially replace either in the starting lineup if/when that time comes? Sure. But that will still open up holes on the right side of the offensive line. The point being is that the Falcons need to continue to invest higher picks in offensive linemen in the coming years.
And of course the defense remains a work in progress. While things look promising with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan calling the shots, the reality is that several of the Falcons top playmakers on that side of the ball are already on the wrong side of 30. So like Jackson, they aren’t players that are going to linger in Atlanta for an extended period. Jonathan Babineaux is a free agent next year, while Asante Samuel and Osi Umenyiora both have contracts that expire a year later. The Falcons are optimistic that between among young players like Jonathan Massaquoi, Corey Peters, Malliciah Goodman, Desmond Trufant, Robert McClain, and Robert Alford, several will be able to step up to fill those voids. But even if some of them do turn into good pros, similar to the situation with White and Gonzalez, should they realistically be expected to be on the same level as the defenders they are replacing? Babineaux has been one of the more disruptive defensive tackles over the years, Asante has intercepted more passes in the first decade of his career than any cornerback since the merger, and Osi has averaged nine sacks over the past eight seasons.
Strong defensive play is very advantageous when it comes to winning in January. Simply look at Joe Flacco’s postseason success in Baltimore over the years: 9 wins in 5 seasons. But he’s gotten quite a bit of help, as the Ravens defense has averaged a finish of 7th in total defense and 5th in scoring defense during that span. Even in the case of Brees where the 2009 Saints defense gave up lots of points and yards, it was excellent at creating turnovers (finished 2nd in the league) which gave their potent offense more opportunities to score. The Falcons have already proven they can be very opportunistic under Nolan, finishing fifth in takeaways last season. If they don’t build up their defense to a level where they can shut down opposing offenses a la the Ravens, they need to continue to excel at turning them over.
Good defensive play in January also doubles your chance of winning by now allowing teams to be able to win playoff games on the road. That has been something the Falcons have struggled with during Ryan’s first five years (so have the Saints under Brees, who is also winless on the road). The better the Falcons defense can play, the less pressure essentially is on Ryan to have to win the most regular season games in order to secure home-field advantage. The wildcard teams that have made successful Super Bowl runs in recent years, have been spearheaded by strong defensive play that have gone on the road and taken down top offenses.
All of this is to suggest that Ryan’s huge contract isn’t necessarily a culmination of what has come over the past five seasons, but rather a commencement of things that will come over the next five years. The hope is that in 2013, Ryan will quarterback the team to even greater success than they saw in 2012 where they essentially came ten yards shy of reaching the Super Bowl. Whether that hope proves true or false really doesn’t matter, because the Falcons will still need to continue to work at building the support structure around Ryan over the life of this contract that will put him in the best position to earn it and quiet the few naysayers that he has.