Before I start to discuss anything it’s important to know that I’m a huge Falcons fan, but I think it’s time to talk about the hype surrounding Matt Ryan. I have been pleased with Ryan since he became a Falcon but I don’t view the Falcons with rose colored glasses and I do what I can to not “drink the Kool-Aid” before each season. I have been a pretty consistent supporter of Ryan since he became a Falcon, especially because he played a significant role in turning the franchise around, bringing consecutive winning seasons to Atlanta for the first time in franchise history and getting us back to the playoffs for the first time since Michael Vick was our starting quarterback.
But at the same time it is not unfair to acknowledge some of Ryan’s faults of which there are a few. The most obvious of these faults is his relative lack of arm strength. It’s not awful like Chad Pennington’s in my opinion, but it is not good or great by any means. I would constitute it as above average personally, because I think he struggles to stretch the field well downfield, and doesn’t have great zip on passes in the 10-15 yard range like deep curls, deep outs and other difficult NFL throws. To his credit he makes up for his lack of arm strength with good accuracy and anticipation which he routinely uses when he throws the ball before his receivers make their breaks on these more difficult throws so that the defensive back still struggles to make plays on the ball even though the ball hangs in the air a bit longer than you would ideally prefer.
One thing that I have noticed Ryan has been doing over the last couple seasons is forcing passes to particular players and at times doing so instead of finding an open player. Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White are usually the players he forces the ball to when he does do it. I have seen Ryan throw the ball to Gonzalez in double coverage, once or twice with three players around him, and this does not traditionally end well for Ryan because he doesn’t quite have the zip on his throws to put the ball into tight windows without the defense having time to make a play on the ball. The most frustrating part of this is that he almost seemed to be regressing as far as making his progressions in these specific instances because he would ignore Turner open in the flat at times in favor of throwing to Gonzalez or White in double coverage.
The final thing that I personally consider a flaw is that I don’t think Ryan can will us to a victory. Not many quarterbacks can, but this is something the great ones are able to do and I don’t think Ryan can do it. I’m not saying he should be able to play by himself out there and win the game, but the correlation between Ryan having a below-average/poor game and our running game struggling to consistently churn out yardage is pretty staggering. Obviously a good running game makes life easier for any quarterback, but great quarterbacks are able to shoulder the load on offense and throw their teams into contention when they don’t have a running game. Brady, Manning and Aaron Rodgers are all players who have done this consistently for the last couple of years and their teams routinely appear in the playoffs. But when the Falcons (specifically Michael Turner) struggle to gain yardage on the ground on a consistent basis and Ryan is forced to throw to convert 2ndand 3rd and longs to sustain drives it usually results in a loss for Atlanta. That, in my opinion, is not the mark of a great quarterback. And believe me, this isn’t something that I just conjured up out some doom and gloom thought process because of the Falcons unexpected 2-3 start, I have had this opinion of Ryan since I re-watched the Falcons-Steelers game from week one of last year. My post on the subject was actually published on October 5th, 2010, just over a year ago.
Now, one thing that the Falcons made a huge deal about was our lack of big plays last season. I would argue that the Falcons’ lack of big plays as well as their poor pass defense contributed to their problems last year, but their running game and run defense was solid. The Falcons decided that getting Matt Ryan another playmaker at receiver was the best course of action and sold the farm to move up and select Julio Jones. I was skeptical of the move, but I never doubted Jones’ upside. I just worried that the Falcons were putting too much pressure on him by anointing him the starter after watching him practice by releasing Michael Jenkins, a relatively reliable #2 receiver, before Jones had ever played a game. I have been very pleased with Jones and he has been everything I could have hoped for and more this year as a rookie, but we just haven’t been able to get him the ball consistently down-field. We wanted more explosive plays and I tend to believe that our issues with pass protection really inhibit our ability to challenge defenses down-field. Additionally, our wide receivers during Ryan’s first three seasons in the NFL weren’t exactly burners that created a lot of down-field separation so it wasn’t completely unrealistic to see limited down-field plays that can change games and grab momentum for the offense.
However, I think it is very clear that Ryan plays a role in our limited deep plays as well. You can’t blame it all on Mike Mularkey’s lack of down-field play-calling, you can’t blame it on a lack of receivers who can separate down-field, and you can’t blame it exclusively on the offensive line. At some point Ryan is responsible for his production on down-field throws, so I would like to highlight how he has done on throws that produce 20+ yard plays that the Falcons were so driven to create this year. These are statistics on any throw that is thrown 21+ yards from the line of scrimmage from the past four years:
2008: 21/55, 718 yards, 5 TD’s and 2 INT’s
2009: 9/35, 297 yards, 3 TD’s, 5 INT’s
2010: 10/38, 320 yards, 4 TD’s, 1 INT
2011: 2/14, 94 yards, 0 TD’s, 0 INT’s (through five games)
Now, it’s easy to look at these statistics and say “Wow, that’s awful. Even in his best season he was only 21/55, that’s under 50% and good completion percentages for quarterbacks are typically 60%.” While that is true, deep passes that travel 21+ yards are difficult to complete even for great quarterbacks. Here are some stats for some other quarterbacks to help demonstrate this:
2010: 24/65, 976 yards, 8 TD’s, 5 INT’s
2011: 7/13, 255 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 INT’s (thru five games)
2010: 14/36, 537 yards, 6 TD’s, 2 INT’s
2011: 6/18, 186 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT’s (thru five games)
2010: 22/57, 852 yards, 9 TD’s, 4 INT’s
2011: 4/14, 159 yards, 2 TD’s, 2 INT’s (thru five games)
2010: 10/39, 345 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT’s
2011: 6/15, 213 yards, 2 TD’s, 0 INT’s (thru four games)
So as you can see, even some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL don’t complete a lot of down-field throws. They are low percentage plays a lot of the time and they are some of the most difficult throws to complete because they require better pass protection, they require a good route from the receiver as well as a more difficult down-field catch, plus they require a more difficult throw from the quarterback. But still, the best quarterbacks in the business complete more down-field passes for more yardage than Ryan does, and while some of that has to do with who they are throwing the ball to or who is blocking for them at the end of the day Ryan has to shoulder a portion of the blame for his limited down-field production. He’s not a great deep ball passer and these statistics help prove that to be true. You would like to see him take that positive rookie season in which he was able to threaten defenses down-field and progress, but instead he has regressed on his deep passes and become less and less efficient with each year of experience. That is a disturbing trend and it’s one that absolutely warrants mentioning because he is in his fourth season in the NFL and is surrounded with some legitimate weapons with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas (who has been a pleasant surprise now that he is healthy), Michael Turner, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers. Is this a team full of pro-bowlers and Hall of Famers? Perhaps not, but they are still legitimate weapons that are better than perhaps a majority of other teams in the NFL.
And yet, in spite of this improved supporting cast Ryan hasn’t been able to be as efficient on deep passes as Sam Bradford, a player I have never been a fan of and continue to be skeptical of in the NFL. But he has almost matched his previous totals in completions, yardage and has already thrown one more touchdown pass on 21+ yard throws than he did as a rookie. He is trending upwards in spite of his pathetic supporting cast of wide receivers who are regularly lambasted for dropping passes. Ryan’s supporting cast drops passes too, sure, but it would be outlandish to suggest that his supporting cast is not significantly superior to Bradford’s. Yet, in spite of this assertion, Bradford has been more efficient on deep passes and has a comparable QB rating to Ryan (Ryan has a 79.9 QB rating this year, Bradford a 70.8).
Now, this is not an attempt to say that Bradford is going to be the next great QB, far from it. I am also not trying to suggest that Ryan is a poor quarterback. I am simply trying to demonstrate that he isn’t a very good deep ball passer. The games I have watched of him (over three years of games at this point) as well as the statistics he has accumulated are pretty clear evidence of this, and it’s arguable that even with better pass protection and upgraded skill position weapons that he won’t ever be a good or great deep ball passer. That’s just not what his skill set is. This season on passes within 20 yards (excluding passes behind the line of scrimmage) Ryan has a QB rating of 91.54, a good number. Rodgers has an insane rating of over 120, as does Tom Brady. Both are having incredible seasons statistically thus far, and it shows on their bread and butter passes of under 20 yards. Ryan is good in this area too, and to force him to throw deep passes that he struggles to consistently complete seems counter-intuitive. On one hand, you obviously can’t keep throwing passes that are under 10 yards while attempting to run the ball or the defense will crowd the line of scrimmage and put a stranglehold on the offense’s ability to sustain successful drives. But that hasn’t been Ryan’s problem. He is actually most efficient statistically on throws that are 11-20 yards downfield, completing 24/43 attempts for 402 yards, 4 TD’s and 2 INT’s (a rating of 99.2). That is statistically superior to Phillip Rivers, but significantly below the outrageous QB ratings that Rodgers and Brady have (142.1 and 130.8, respectively).
So, my argument is that the Falcons need to acknowledge that Matt Ryan isn’t the next Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. He doesn’t have the same skill set. He has been effective on passes that are under 20 yards and while we still need to take the occasional deep shot, passes in that 11-20 yard range will help keep defenses honest and can turn into longer gains if the pass is completed to a player like Julio Jones who can gain quality yards after the catch once he has the ball in his hands. So while everyone loves to see the 30 or 40+ yard deep ball that the receiver hauls in and scores on that just isn’t what Ryan is good at doing. Mularkey and the rest of the staff should acknowledge this and continue to work to his strengths: Passes with-in twenty yards, play-action passing, and passes on three and five step drops. He is good at making pre-snap reads and gets the ball out quickly when he identifies a blitz, and if we can sustain drives and get some yards after the catch to make bigger plays without just lobbing the ball up and praying for it to be completed I think our offense will be better off.
This isn’t me arguing against 20+ yard plays, it’s simply me questioning how we are going about getting them. Ryan’s track record is pretty solid evidence that throwing the ball 21+ yards downfield isn’t the most efficient way for him to accumulate yards, so why would we continue to force him to do it? He’s not an elite quarterback and this is something he struggles with, so let’s continue to play to his strengths as much as possible. He can’t just throw us into games when we are behind or when the running game is ineffective. Accepting that and moving forward seems like a more logical step to take rather than pretending he is going to be the next elite NFL quarterback, because after over three years of watching him I’m just not convinced that he is going to be.