Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan throws an incomplete pass under pressure from Redskins linebacker Preston Smith in an NFL preseason game on Aug. 11, 2016. 
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com

Matt Ryan: Overrated? Underrated? Both?

Having observed him on a regular basis since 2008, my feeling about Matt Ryan has been that he’s good enough to win a Super Bowl. That has wobbled a time or two without changing.

As we know, a team can win a Super Bowl without a great quarterback. Everyone cites the example of Trent Dilfer, but there’s a more recent one: Peyton Manning was a substandard quarterback last season, but the Broncos’ defense was so stout that he didn’t need to do much.

Only once as a professional has Ryan worked with a defense ranking in the NFL’s upper half. In the season ahead, the Falcons again figure to win only by scoring big. The reason they crashed from 5-0 to 8-8 last season was that they stopped scoring touchdowns. Some of it had to do with center snaps. Some surely had to do with whatever it was Kyle Shanahan was calling. Some had to do with their quarterback throwing the ball to the other team.

Apart from his 16 interceptions (second-most as a pro), Ryan’s stats last season mirrored his numbers most every season. Still, the quarterback who led the Falcons to five consecutive winning seasons couldn’t lift the 2015 Birds above .500 after a flying start. After an offseason of reassessing, the happy-talk Falcons decided that everything is hunky dory with Ryan, with Shanahan, with everything under the Flowery Branch sun. Then, in their first exhibition, the first-team offense went three-and-out twice with Ryan completing none of four passes.

Please understand: Exhibitions mean nothing. Had Ryan gone 4-for-4 with four 80-yard touchdowns, it would likewise have meant nothing. But, having had 7 ½ months to wonder What Went Wrong last fall, we’re still stuck on the discussion that has been ongoing since April 2008: Is Matty Ice good enough?

From Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus: “He is neither an All-Pro nor is he garbage … Ryan is a good quarterback (who) makes some bad mistakes.”

From an anonymous personnel director quoted by Mike Sando of ESPN Insider: “I haven’t completely lost faith in him, but I thought he could be a guy who could tilt the field more. Now I think he has fallen more in line with the game manager and not a guy who is going to pull it out by himself.”

From Rivers McCown in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016: “Ryan lacks prototype arm strength but has every other trait you’d want in a quarterback. Perhaps he was pressing to do more to make up for the players around him. Perhaps they were the sort of mishaps that happen when you try to teach an old veteran quarterback new tricks … or perhaps it was the start of an early decline.”

In NFL.com’s latest list of 100 best players (as voted by players), Ryan was omitted. He was 77th last summer, 17th in 2013. In Sando’s annual rankings of quarterbacks, Ryan was 13th overall – down from 11th last year and an eighth-place tie in 2014 – and near the bottom of Tier 2. He trailed Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Tony Romo. In Monson’s ranking of position groups, the Falcons’ quarterbacks ranked eighth.

Ryan fits the definition of a franchise quarterback: At 31, he has held the position for eight seasons without the Falcons once feeling a need to upgrade. But if he hasn’t risen to the level of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton-in-his-prime by now, it’s not apt to happen. Weird as it sounds, Ryan can be classified as underrated and overrated. He has never been what’s wrong with the Falcons, but he hasn’t hoisted them to the highest of heights.

There is, however, one sobering note. From McCown: “We’re more inclined to be skeptical that Ryan’s skill went down a level (last season), but non-elite quarterbacks don’t tend to have pretty ends.”

Gulp. If Ryan is indeed in decline …

On second thought, let’s not think about that. Too scary.

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