Back in November, Bill Barnwell of Grantland wrote a nice piece discussing Matt Ryan’s playoff record. Barnwell’s main argument was that Ryan’s 0-3 record in January was overrated because it had happened to many a great player from Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, John Elway, etc. The only real difference is that for Ryan (and Manning) it was at the beginning of his career as opposed to the middle or end. I thought it was a good read, but the value of it may be lost on many people. Like it or not, the crosshairs are stuck squarely on Ryan this weekend. If the Falcons lose this game, people will say he’s incapable of winning big games. If the Falcons win on Sunday, a very ugly and oversized gorilla will remove itself from Ryan’s back.
It is commonly said that quarterbacks receive too much credit when teams win, and too much blame when they lose. And despite most people in general agreeing with this statement, it doesn’t stop them from continuing to do it. You look at a player like Joe Flacco, who has won multiple games in the postseason, but has not really performed at a high level in the majority of them. Yet, Flacco continues to get credit for being a “winner when it matters,” and Ryan does not.
When you look back at Ryan’s performances in the Falcons’ playoff losses, they haven’t really been poor. Against the Cardinals, he made some mistakes (his first throw was an interception), but the reason why the Falcons lost was because essentially the defense couldn’t handle the Arizona Cardinals offense. The Falcons were a run-first team that ran their offense through Michael Turner back in 2008. In that Cardinals game, the defense quickly gave up two big play touchdowns to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin before they could really get Turner going. Midway through the second quarter they were down 14-3 and forced to play a game they did not want to, which was throwing to catch up. The Falcons didn’t have much of a deep passing game at that point, as that was predicated on play-action and Turner’s running. But Ryan played well enough to get them back in the game until the very end where the defense once again buckled to lose it. Now compare that to say Andy Dalton, who is in similar circumstances in Cincinnati where he is not the facilitator of the offense. And look at when the Bengals have gotten behind against the Texans the past two years, has Dalton helped his team claw its way back into those games?
Against Green Bay, no one should be blaming Ryan for a poor performance. Outside his throw on the pick six to Tramon Williams before halftime, anybody that suggests Ryan didn’t play well enough to win that game is crazy. If Michael Jenkins doesn’t slip in the endzone on the preceding drive, it’s more than likely that outcome of that game goes much differently as the Falcons could have held a 21-14 going into halftime. Instead, Jenkins loses his footing and the Packers get two quick scores, and the game gets out of reach for the Falcons by the time the half hits. And again, much of that had to do with the fact that in 2010 the Falcons were still an offense that was centered around their ability to run the ball, wear down offenses and keep their defense from getting exposed. That’s exactly what the Packers did in that game, and that has very little to do with anything Ryan could or could not have done.
I will concede that Ryan did play poorly last year in the Giants loss. I don’t fully blame him though, because I think the Falcons went into that game with a very flawed gameplan. Their hope, and I stress the word hope, was that they could slow down the Giants pass rush by running the ball to Turner. Well, apparently the Falcons coaching staff had slept through the entire regular season as they did not notice that Michael Turner was incapable of being that type of runner anymore. While he had top-level production in 2011, on tape he looked more on par with an average NFL running back due to his lack of burst and diminishing power. When Turner and the Falcons ground attack was easily bottled up by the Giants early, the Falcons coaches really had no Plan B and the Falcons were stuck.
You contrast that with a player like Joe Flacco, who despite winning multiple playoff games through the first four years of his career, rarely played at a high level in those games. The Ravens won those games predominantly due to the fact that they had an outstanding defense and generally due to a strong running game. A perfect example of this is a 33-14 win the Ravens had over the Patriots in the 2009-10 playoffs. Flacco threw a total of 10 passes in that game, completing 4 of them for 34 yards and an interception. Yet the Ravens still won the game by nearly 20 points. Why? Well it may have had something to do with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combining for 221 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 42 carries in that game. The fact that Tom Brady also threw 3 picks and fumbled also probably factored into that outcome as well. The first play from scrimmage in that game was an 83-yard touchdown run by Rice. The next 17 points the Ravens scored were all on drives that began inside the Patriots 30-yard line due to turnovers. The Ravens were up 24-0 before the end of the first quarter. And guess what? Flacco had 1 yard passing up to that point. This is not just one instance, be my guest and go back and really look at the Ravens postseason games from 2008-2010, and you’ll see pretty much the same: great defense almost every time, and more often than not a dominant ground attack. What you won’t see is Flacco “leading” his team to victory, in the sense that Flacco is the one driving that bus.
The point I’m trying to make with this example, is too often people will simply look at the wins and losses and nothing else and make a sweeping judgment off that alone. I understand why people do it. Generally speaking, when a team wins it is because they have a good quarterback and/or he plays well. When they lose, it is because the quarterback is not good or didn’t have a good game. With most NFL games that is true. And it’s simply easier for people to think that way, and it doesn’t require your brain to recall specific details. At the end of the day, no one remembers that Michael Jenkins slipped in the endzone, or that Chris Houston got beat on a touchdown pass against Arizona, or that Ravens defense gave Brady one of his worst games ever as a pro. They just remember that the Falcons and Ryan lost, and the Ravens and Flacco won.
And this puts undue stress on Ryan going into this weekend. He has to play well and the Falcons have to win, or the fingers are going to be started to be pointed at him. Next season, 2013, will be the final year of Ryan’s rookie deal. I think (and hope) the Falcons want to give him an extension after this season. It could save a lot of money on next year’s cap, and it gives them stability at the position. Flacco’s contract will be up at the end of this season, and if the Ravens should lose this weekend and/or Flacco performs poorly against the Broncos, there are going to be a lot of questions about his future. And similarly, you don’t want to get into a situation like the Saints were not long ago, where your franchise QB is holding out because the front office is dragging its feet on a contract. You don’t want that drama. For all parties involved, the Falcons, Ryan, and the fan base, it’s just a lot easier if Ryan goes out and wins this game and “proves” he can win in January, as opposed to opening up a can of worms if the Falcons should lose.
I’ve outlined previously that I think Matt Ryan has done everything that deserves a long-term extension, regardless of this weekend’s outcome. I think anybody that’s been watching the games knows that the reason why the Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs is not because Matt Ryan isn’t “good enough.” If the Falcons should lose this weekend, I doubt it is because Ryan cost them the game. I mean when you look at this 2012 Falcons team, they have practically no running game, an underwhelming offensive line, and a fairly middling defense overall. One of the few great things about this team has been Matt Ryan. And regardless what happens on Sunday, I don’t think that changes. If he should have a bad game, then it’s a bad game. As I outlined earlier with Tom Brady, it happens to even the best quarterbacks in the league. When we honestly assess Brady’s postseason success, particularly earlier in his career, was it because he was so great, or because he was playing with a top-level defense? When you look at Peyton Manning’s successful Super Bowl run in 2005, he was fairly mediocre in January, and they won games largely due to a strong ground attack spearheaded by Joseph Addai and good defensive play. Prior to that run, Manning had a reputation of not being good enough to win in January. Even when your quarterback is playing at a near-perfect level (see Aaron Rodgers in 2011), it still doesn’t guarantee success in January. Teams win and team lose. Quarterback are part of that team, and certainly the biggest part. But this is football, and one man no matter how great he is cannot outplay 11 other guys.
I’m optimistic that the 800-pound gorilla will be removed from Ryan’s back after tomorrow’s game. I expect Ryan to play well and lead this team to victory. But if I’m wrong and that doesn’t happen, it’s not going to drastically change my opinion of Ryan. Because the simple truth is that this Falcon team has morphed from a team that was centered around Michael Turner’s running, and turned slowly but surely into a pass-first team that is centered around Matt Ryan. And guess what happened? The Falcons had one of their best seasons in franchise history in 2012. Did they do it against a lax schedule? Sure. But it doesn’t change the fact that Ryan was one of the five best quarterbacks in the league this year. It doesn’t change the fact that the Falcons operating under the no huddle are one of the most feared teams in the league. The Falcons threw the ball 63% of the time this year. They were one of two teams (along with the Indianapolis Colts) that threw the ball over 60% of the time, and made the playoffs. Basically Matt Ryan “carried” them this far. Hopefully for Ryan’s sake, the rest of the team will step up on Sunday and help shoulder some of the load.