He’s the exact definition of a franchise quarterback. The Falcons drafted him No. 3 overall a decade ago. He has since started every game save two, both absences coming in 2009. He has taken them to the playoffs six times in 10 seasons. He has presided over six seasons of 10-plus wins. He has led them to the Super Bowl and a 28-3 lead therein. He was rookie of the year. He has made the Pro Bowl four times. He has been MVP.
We often describe Matthew Thomas Ryan as to what he isn’t, meaning Not Tom Brady and Not Aaron Rodgers. Those two are among the 10 best quarterbacks ever. Ryan isn’t – but he’d crack the top 25, maybe the top 20. He’s more than enough for a franchise that doesn’t have Brady/Rodgers, and we note that the latter’s only Super Bowl season came in 2010, which was a while ago.
Brady is the best ever. Rodgers is the greatest QB talent of this era, possibly any era. That Ryan is neither doesn’t mean he’s not good, too. The measure of an NFL quarterback is simple: Can you win a Super Bowl with him? The Falcons will win a Super Bowl with Ryan. (Though it might require a different offensive coordinator.) They should have won one already.
He’s 32 – Brady is 40, Rodgers 34 – with no history of major injury. He mightn’t have another season like 2016, which was a harmonic convergence of schemes and schemer (Kyle Shanahan) and personnel, but there’s no reason to believe Ryan’s time on the top shelf bears an expiration date of 10 years. On the contrary, he’s making plays and throws on the high side of 30 that he didn’t at 25. His rookie season was the most impressive by any quarterback – Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger didn’t inherit a 4-12 team that had seen its cornerstone go to jail and its coach flee for the Ozarks – and he’s way better now.
Ryan met the media here Monday to discuss the extension that had been an open secret for months and was announced last week. He’s the highest-paid player in NFL history, which means something but not all that much. His $30 million annual over five years is largely a function of market timing: His contract was set to lapse after this season, and Kirk Cousins just got $84 million for three years. Ryan is better than Cousins. Ergo, $150 million over five years.
The new contract isn’t just money, though. The new contract is the Falcons’ way of saying: We’ve gotten what we wanted from this guy, and we want to keep getting it. For those who insist the Falcons will never win it all with this QB, ask yourselves this: How long would it take to identify, acquire and groom somebody better? Is there anything in Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, both young and gifted, that makes you believe they’ll have a better decade than Ryan just authored? Four of the top 10 draftees last week were quarterbacks – because their teams are searching for their Matt Ryan.
Lest we forget, Ryan wasn’t always a popular choice as Face of the Franchise. He came after Michael Vick, whose skill set was rather different. Ryan was nit-picked for his lack of arm strength and all the interceptions he threw at Boston College. Given the uncertainty in the organization – rookie general manager, rookie head coach, rookie quarterback – there was never a guarantee that Ryan would make it to Year 5, let alone Year 10 and beyond.
But he did. He started his first game. His first pass (to Michael Jenkins) produced a touchdown. His first season ended in the playoffs. He was on track to becoming what he wanted even then to become – “a quarterback a franchise leans on for 15 or 20 years,” he said Monday. “That was my hope.”
Ten years and two weeks later, it’s reality. He’s under contract for six more years. “The best is in front of us,” he said, and he could be right. The Falcons keep drafting well and giving their Franchise QB more weapons. “I’ve been working hard at it for 10 years, and I’m going to continue to work at it.”
Just seeing Ryan, at 32 a married man with infant twin boys, is a revelation to those of us who saw him in those dizzying days of 2008. He sounds the same, but he looks different. He’s leaner. His flexibility has become an ongoing marvel. He has remade his body – unlike Brady, he hasn’t written a book about it – which is the chief reason he hasn’t gotten hurt. (Well, that and being what Mike Smith famously dubbed him – one tough Irishman.)
Ryan: “I’ve learned a lot about training. Some of that has come by luck. I’ve worked with a lot of good strength and conditioning people – some here, some in California. But it’s really learning yourself, what works for you and what doesn’t. There were times I tried to put on weight. My frame doesn’t carry that as well as it does for some others.”
Then: “I don’t have all the answers. But I have a lot more than I had at 23.”
He recalled those early years – which were, we note, in this same 21st Century – when he received game plans via fax machine and viewed game film on a portable DVD player. Now everything’s on an iPad. The world keeps getting faster and sleeker. So does he.
There have been times over this team’s pockmarked history when we wondered if the Falcons would ever stop tripping over themselves. The 2008 draft was one time they didn’t. Matt Ryan was the greatest draft pick they will ever make. He changed the franchise. He remains The Franchise.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com