Falcons’ Matt Ryan evolves in new NFL, feels ‘as good as I ever have’

The NFL has changed in ways that wouldn’t seem to suit Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. As he puts it, there are “more athletic defenses with a higher concentration on speed on defense across the league.” That’s why the next generation of NFL QBs is in the mold of reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, who counters speed with athletic ability and improvisation.

Ryan is neither quick-footed nor much of an ad-libber. He’s no statue, but he will stand in the pocket and take plenty of hits. And yet Ryan has found a way to flourish in the new NFL.

The Falcons have a top-tier player at the NFL’s premier position. That’s an enviable situation for every team in the NFC outside of New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle. Now that Steve Sarkisian is out as Falcons coordinator and Dirk Koetter is back, the only question about Ryan is when age or bad injury luck will catch up to him.

On that subject, Ryan said “how I take care of my body” is high on the list of ways in which he’s evolved.

“I’m 34 years old,” Ryan said Tuesday. “I feel as good as I ever have.”

For as long as that’s the case, the Falcons should feel good about their chances of returning to the postseason. That doesn’t seem to jibe with 2018, when Ryan was very good and the Falcons weren’t. But I see it more like Ryan was that good without a functional run game and with the toll of taking a career-high number of hits from defenders.

Modest gains in offensive line play could turn 7-9 into 9-7 for the Falcons. Significantly improved play up front could mean even more. The Falcons have a very good quarterback still in his prime. That’s not all it takes, but good teams are built around it.

“I’m not scared of the expectations or shying away from what we are capable of doing,” Ryan said. “I think we can do great things as a team, but the only way to do that is compartmentalize and concentrate on the day-to-day and improve in small increments. That’s my message (to teammates): Don’t shy away from what we want to do, have that in the back burner, but how we get there is most important.”

Ryan said he’s better at that now: “You learn from screwing up.” That probably helps to explain his mid-career resurgence in 2016, when he had his finest season leading an all-time great offense. The previous offseason Ryan simplified his approach to reading defenses to counter the chaos created by those speedy and specialized players on the other side of the ball.

That came after a year of growing pains with then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He had Ryan running more bootleg passes than ever, another way to slow aggressive defenses. Ryan also had a down season by his standards in 2017, the first year of Dan Quinn’s inexplicable flirtation with Sarkisian.

But in Year 2 with “Sark,” Ryan completed 69.4 percent of his pass attempts for 4,924 yards and 35 touchdowns with seven interceptions. In 2016 Ryan completed 69.4 percent of his throws for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Those are similar seasons, statistically speaking.

Last season Ryan ranked fourth in the two major QB efficiency metrics compiled by Football Outsiders. According to Pro Football Focus Ryan was the second-most accurate QB in the NFL on passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. PFF also notes that over the last three seasons “no quarterback has earned a higher passing grade than Matt Ryan on throws between the numbers.” Those are the reasons it would be a big deal if the Falcons solved their problems at offensive guard, so Ryan can make those passes while stepping in to clean pockets.

Numbers need context but, in this case, that only makes Ryan look better. As mentioned, the Falcons in 2018 couldn’t run the ball and couldn’t protect Ryan and yet he produced at a level not far off from his best season. Ryan shares responsibility for that four-game stretch when the Falcons couldn’t break 20 points but, again, it’s hard for a one-dimensional team to score. Besides, in those games Ryan completed 71 percent of his attempts and averaged 282 yards per game with six TDs vs. two picks while getting sacked 14 times.

What was missing for Ryan then, and for much of the season, were big plays. Some of that was on him, but a lot of it had to do with the line play. The Falcons made major additions to that group. Their defense could benefit from better health and Quinn as coordinator, but the NFL is about scoring points and the way to do that is gaining yards in big chunks.

“What Matt has had the ability to do, and Dirk as well, they are part of that trend,” Quinn said Tuesday. “Both of those guys, separate and together, they have been part of high-scoring programs. They know how to attack, and they like to share those concepts together.”

Ryan and Koetter were good together from 2012 to 2014. Ryan was even better once he figured out how to adapt his game for the new, faster NFL. Ryan is still that good, which means the Falcons could be playing in January again.