There’s something else we need to discuss before we let go of the 2019 Falcons. That something — technically a someone — is Matt Ryan.
By his standards, he had a lesser season. Yeah, he threw for 4,466 yards, but let’s be clear: If you’re a decent quarterback who stays healthy and has Julio Jones at your disposal, you’ll always rack up yardage. (Know who led the NFL in passing yardage? Jameis Winston. We say no more.)
Ryan ranked 14th in passer rating and quarterback rating. (They’re slightly different; stat mavens tend to favor the latter.) His passer rating of 92.1 wasn’t far off his career average of 94.6. His QBR was the worst of a 12-year career. And here we add the obvious: When next Ryan throws a competitive pass, he’ll be 35.
In the main, the 2019 season wasn’t kind to quarterbacks who’ve built a case for Canton enshrinement. Tom Brady, the best ever, finished 19th in passer rating, 16th in QBR. Aaron Rodgers, the most gifted quarterback ever, finished 12th and 20th. Ben Roethlisberger lasted two games. Drew Brees missed five starts and, headed into December, looked every bit his age, which is 40, prompting this correspondent to declare him all but done. Whereupon he had a mammoth final month and wound up second in passer rating, third in QBR. (Showed me, huh?)
In the post-Peyton Manning era of quarterbacking, those are the Hall of Fame locks. They have 10 Super Bowl victories among them. (Six of those are Brady’s.) Ryan has never quite ascended to Tier 1 among QBs, his 2016 MVP season notwithstanding. For years, he has hovered near the top of Tier 2, other occupants being Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. E. Manning, who’s 38, was benched this season and is poised to take his two Super Bowl rings and retire. Rivers is an intriguing case study.
He’s the best quarterback of this century not to reach a Super Bowl. His 2018 season, in which he led the Chargers to 12-4, was among his finest. The season just completed marked a nadir. He still threw for 4,615 yards, but he finished 17th in passer rating and 22nd in QBR. Rivers turned 38 on Dec. 8, and his contract is set to lapse. A Charger for life, he might be upping sticks soon.
For as much as Ryan has been likened to Brees, I’ve lately come to think of him as more of the Rivers of the East. Rivers is older — he entered the NFL in 2004; Ryan arrived in 2008 — but check these career numbers.
• Completion percentage: Rivers 64.7; Ryan 65.4.
• Touchdown percentage: Rivers 5.2; Ryan 4.7.
• Interception percentage: Rivers 2.6; Ryan 2.2.
• Yards per attempt: Rivers 7.8; Ryan 7.5.
• Winning percentage as starter: Rivers .549; Ryan .577.
• Passer rating: Rivers 95.1; Ryan 94.6.
• Game-winning drives: Rivers 32; Ryan 38.
• Fourth-quarter comebacks: Rivers 27; Ryan 30.
• Pro Bowls: Rivers eight; Ryan four.
• Playoff games: Rivers 11, Ryan 10.
• Playoff seasons: Rivers six, Ryan six.
If you’re asking which career I’d pick as superior, I’d say Ryan’s — he has taken the Falcons to the Super Bowl and won an MVP — but it’s close. That closeness is why Rivers’ regression scares me.
A zillion things went wrong for the Falcons’ offense in 2019: The running game fizzled again; the reconfigured line never coalesced; Mohamed Sanu got traded; Calvin Ridley got hurt. But Ryan wasn’t blameless. He was sacked 48 times, which tied for the league high and marked a career worst. His 14 interceptions tied for the NFL’s sixth-most.
Going by Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) ratings, the Falcons’ offense was the league’s 15th-best. That’s a drop from the eighth of last season, which also saw the Falcons finish 7-9. It’s their lowest offensive ranking since 2007, when Ryan was a Boston College senior.
In the 2016 Football Outsiders Almanac, Rivers McCown wrote of Ryan: “We’re inclined to be skeptical that Ryan’s skill went down a level (in 2015), but non-elite quarterbacks don’t tend to have pretty ends.” The 2016 season, we note, saw Ryan named MVP.
I’ve been watching the man long enough to know that you discount Matty Ice at your peril. He was far from the worst thing about the 2019 Falcons, but he wasn’t great, either. And we say again: He’ll turn 35 in May.
Going bigger-picture, the 2019 season makes us wonder if the order of quarterbacks just underwent a seismic change. The quarterbacks who led their teams to playoff byes are Lamar Jackson, who’s 22; Patrick Mahomes, 24; Jimmy Garoppolo, 28 — and Rodgers, who at 37 didn’t crack the top 10 in yards passing.
I’m not saying the Falcons should dump Ryan and trade up to draft Joe Burrow. (Though I like Joe Burrow a lot.) What I am saying is that the Falcons have made the playoffs twice over the past seven seasons, a span that has seen Ryan start every game save one.
Is he the best quarterback in team history? Absolutely. Does he fit the description of “franchise quarterback”? Without question. Is he apt to be as good again as in 2016, when Kyle Shanahan was calling the tune? Feel free to discuss among yourselves.
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