Matt Ryan has lost as many starts in his past two NFL seasons (he’s 10-22) as he did in his first five (56-22). History suggests that doesn’t qualify as an unusual market correction for the Falcons’ franchise, but it’s not something this era’s starting quarterback had ever experienced … or expected … or was remotely prepared for.
Initially unaware of the math, Ryan responded with a nervous laugh, then said, “That’s not good. … That’s not good. We have to do better.”
He has to do better.
The won-loss record in the past two seasons doesn’t mean Ryan is headed for a career splat. Dan Marino went to Pro Bowls in his first five seasons, then went 6-10. John Elway had a 5-11 season. Brett Favre went 4-12. Johnny Unitas went a pedestrian 29-25 over a four-year span. But great quarterbacks often have to overcome his team’s deficiencies, so one question this season becomes: If the Falcons don’t significantly improve their blocking, their running game and their defense, to what extent is Ryan capable of rescuing them?
“This is a league that’s based on producing consistently — day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out,” he said Tuesday. “We haven’t done a good enough job collectively, and I haven’t done a good enough job with that in the last two years.”
Statistically, Ryan has dropped slightly in completion percentage and interceptions, but the biggest problem in the past two seasons has been the offensive line’s inability to get in anybody’s way. Ryan was sacked an average of 22 times in his first five seasons, but 75 times in the past two.
There are ducks in a shooting gallery that are better protected.
But Ryan is this team’s leader. He is its highest paid player. With those two designations come a certain responsibility, even if that requires the difficult task or morphing into Houdini. He can’t go through periods like the seven interceptions he threw in consecutive games against Arizona and Carolina in 2013 (which started a five-game losing streak) or the five picks he threw in last season’s first two losses at Cincinnati and Minnesota.
The Falcons are flawed. Fair or unfair, Ryan can’t afford to be flawed. He has to be the difference-maker.
Asked what the biggest difference in the past two years was, he said having more success in the final one or two possessions of games decided by a touchdown or less. That means more success in situational football, such as the two-minute drill (a point of emphasis under new coach Dan Quinn).
But’s it’s more than that.
“As a quarterback you get a lot of the glory when things go good and a lot of the heat when things go bad,” he said. “But anybody worth their salt wouldn’t put the blame on anybody else. You’ve got to look in the mirror first. There are definitely things I can do better. And while those last two possessions are important, the first 10 count, too. You never know when there’s going to be a play that makes the difference in a game. You have to nail them when you have a chance.”
The coaching change from Mike Smith to Quinn could and should benefit Ryan. Things had grown stagnant in the locker room and the organization. Change was needed. For as much as Smith was loved by players and had his defenders, the Falcons underachieved in the last two seasons, even factoring in the injuries and personnel deficiencies.
Ryan stayed out of that debate, but he said, “Nobody is a bigger supporter of Mike than myself. But I feel like any time you get an opportunity to work with new people you get to see things from a different perspective. It’s not like you forget all of the things from Mike Smith or Dirk Koetter or Bill Musgrave or Mike Mularkey. But you get to hear some different takes on things and apply to yourself. Dan just has a difference approach to what he believes in, and guys have done a great job buying into that.”
Ryan has bought in. He has looked strong in the preseason. But if things don’t work out this season, there’s a possibility he will catch more heat than the head coach. He may need to be close to perfect for a less-than-perfect team.