Editor's note: This article was first published on June 11, 2016.
Flowery Branch -- The lights are off, the door is cracked open and inside a small meeting room at the Falcons’ practice facility, Matt Ryan is sitting in a chair, holding a remote, his eyes shifting from the two computer monitors in front of him to a large screen on the far wall.
“The glamorous life of a quarterback,” he says.
He asks me what I want to watch. I consider answering, “On the Waterfront,” then respond, “It just can’t be all touchdowns.”
On cue: “It’s amazing. Here’s some random clips I just threw together and … oh look … touchdown … touchdown …”
The offseason has a way of lightening the mood.
The Falcons are coming off their most bipolar of seasons: a 5-0 start followed by a 3-8 finish, including a six-game, mallet-to-the-head of a losing streak.
Offensive problems were central to the spiral, and Ryan was in the middle of the offense, so he naturally became the lightning rod for criticism. Your viewpoint on who was most to blame for the failures might’ve depended on whether there was a Falcons No. 2 jersey hanging in your closet, or a Kyle Shanahan mugshot in the middle of a dartboard hanging on your wall.
Ryan looks away from the screen. He had just dissected an interception in an early-season game against Washington. It took him too long to get in the correct foot position coming out of play-action (“Two hitches. It needs to be one.”) and he threw late to an open Roddy White, allowing a defender to cut in front for the pick.
“That has nothing to do with scheme,” Ryan said. “It has everything to do with technique. That’s on me.”
Shanahan is married to his scheme and leans toward obstinate. But so do most offensive coordinators. As Ryan said, “He’s certainly strong-willed, and he has a strong belief in his system. But anyone worth their salt should be. I’ve also found Kyle very receptive to things.”
I mention to Ryan that his receivers never seemed happy last year. His response: “When guys are pushed out of their comfort zone it’s tough. We all needed to do a better job last year of just looking in the mirror.”
Ryan could be better. He had one of his worst seasons as a pro (21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 12 fumbles). The Falcons’ quarterback rating in the red zone (83.6) ranked 23rd in the NFL.
Shanahan didn’t always call the right plays. Receivers didn’t always run the correct routes. Teammates didn’t always block or clear an area. But Ryan often just made a bad throw or a bad decision. He knows that. He owns that. But after multiple viewings of multiple mistakes in the film room this offseason, he said the problems are correctable and believes all have been in step this offseason.
Communication was a problem. (“When you’re transitioning offenses, it’s like going from English to Spanish.”) He rattles off a series of numbers and words for a play-call — which I wasn’t allowed to type here — that meant one thing under Dirk Koetter (2012-14) but the opposite under Shanahan.
“There was hesitation,” he said. “And sometimes, we were even saying the same thing but thinking something different.”
To the tape …
Home game. Washington. Falcons trailing 13-12 with six minutes left.
Ryan’s biggest problem in 2015: setting his feet in play-action. In the past, his eyes were down the field. In Shanahan’s scheme, his back is to the defense for five steps, requiring him to quickly pivot, set and throw, requiring far more trust and less hesitation. In the aforementioned interception, Ryan shows how his left foot was in front of his right knee as he turned, a bad position when throwing back to his left. So he had to pivot a second time (two hitches) before throwing. Too late. Interception.
Ryan: “I actually got better at this as the season went on — contrary to popular belief and our record.”
Home game. Tampa Bay. Three weeks later.
Julio Jones shows a burst to pull away a defender on top. White crosses into the open area for a catch. What most didn’t notice: There was a missed block on the left side (Ryan’s blindside) that nearly led to a sack. But Ryan had done such a good job coming out of play-action and quickly setting his feet that he still had enough time to throw.
Ryan: “That’s a sack against the Redskins.”
Home game. Indianapolis. Ryan’s worst game of the season. Three touchdowns but three interceptions, including one in the red zone and a pick-six, a potential 14-point swing in a 24-21 loss.
With the Falcons at the Indy 12, Ryan drops back and tries to hit White just outside the goal line. But White is rerouted two yards short by a defender, then a defender makes contact (illegally) and forces him another two yards closer to Ryan at the five. So the pass to White is high, goes off his hands and is intercepted by Dwight Lowery.
Ryan: “The pass was a little high. But to me that play is just sometimes the cost of throwing over the middle.”
Fourth quarter. Falcons lead Indy 21-14. Ball at the Atlanta 1. Big mistake.
Ryan comes out of play-action clean, but he throws a touch late for Jacob Tamme. Defender D’Qwell Jackson initially steps up as a run defender but suddenly drops into coverage, picks it off at the 6 and trots back for an easy touchdown. Ryan never saw him.
“If I throw it earlier, it’s a completion. I have to just trust our (play) action will work and let it go next time. It looks like I’m throwing the ball right to him.”
Some opponents caught up to elements of the Falcons’ offense as the season went on. One example was a play in which running back Devonta Freeman runs a little arc out of the backfield and around left end over the middle. Early in the season, Dallas tried to cover Freeman with an end, and Ryan burned them, threading a perfect pass for a 35-yard gain.
But later in the season.
Final game. Home. New Orleans. Score tied 17-17 with 1:47 left.
The Falcons try the Freeman play again. The Saints are ready. A defender immediately forces Freeman inside, throwing off the timing of his route. Ryan sees this and doesn’t react well. He throws the pass anyway, and defensive back Jamarca Sanford jumps inside and makes the pick. The Saints drive for an easy game-winning field goal.
Ryan: “I get caught in weird position, like, ‘Oh (expletive).’”
“When a guy gets rerouted like that, he’s dead. Move on to the next guy.”
During the 5-0 start, Ryan said he was just fortunate to get away with mistakes. He also believes the offense was fine for maybe 55 plays a game. “Where we have to get better are the catastrophic 10.”
They’re all on film.
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