Never mind legacy: Matt Ryan proving greatness now

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who has had an MVP-caliber season, is one of four quarterbacks left in the NFL playoffs. The other three, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (shown here), New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, have all won Super Bowls and likely will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (AP photo)

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who has had an MVP-caliber season, is one of four quarterbacks left in the NFL playoffs. The other three, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (shown here), New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, have all won Super Bowls and likely will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (AP photo)

All this talk about legacy seems silly. Matt Ryan is 31 years old. He’s a quarterback in his ninth NFL season, possibly the midway point of his career.

"The way they protect quarterbacks now — don't get me started — he can be around another eight or nine years," Falcons teammate Dwight Freeney said with amusing bitterness.

“Let’s just leave that legacy stuff until way down the line,” coach Dan Quinn said.

People wondered about John Elway’s legacy when he was 36 and had a 7-8 playoff record and 18 postseason interceptions. Then he won two Super Bowls at the ages of 37 and 38. There’s your legacy.

But because of this stage, because of the size of the contracts, because everybody wants everything to happen five minutes ago, absolute declarations in sports usually come quicker than they should — particularly at quarterback, the position most associated with wins and losses.

It's conference championship weekend. Three of the four quarterbacks this week have won Super Bowls: Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New England's Tom Brady and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. All three likely are going to the Hall of Fame.

The other quarterback is Ryan, who has done much to enhance his resume this season with a regular season that may win him the MVP award and the Falcons' divisional playoff win over Seattle last week. Ryan completed more than 70 percent of his passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He led an offense that rolled up 36 points against the NFL's No. 3 scoring defense.

The Falcons could have scored another touchdown if Ryan didn’t take a knee three times from the Seattle 2-yard line with two minutes left. They took pity on the opponent.

Let’s not talk about legacy. Let’s talk about now.

Matt Ryan is right there with the other three quarterbacks still playing, even if he’s not there in rings. The adjustments he has made in a scheme many believed was not best for his skill set, the improvements he has made in his game and his continued growth in leadership and toughness puts him in that top tier of quarterbacks.

Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was Houston's quarterback coach when he evaluated Ryan coming out of Boston College and others before the 2008 draft

“From the throwing ability, you could see he had that back in college,” Shanahan said. “But it’s not just about that. It’s the person inside. You have to have a certain intelligence level to handle all the stuff. You have to be able to handle the pressure. That’s usually what separates people. You never really know that about someone until you get around them.”

This was a season in which Ryan could have easily gone south.

He was coming off arguably the worst season of his career, with a 21-16 touchdown-interception ratio and a career-high 12 fumbles (although some of those could be attributed to the pre-Alex Mack chaos at center). He struggled with his footwork in Shanahan’s scheme. He struggled in play-action and often having his back to the defense. Ryan had some level of success before Shanahan arrived, and offensive coordinators tend to get married again.

He and Shanahan, both stubborn in their own ways, sometimes bumped heads, but Quinn vowed he was committed to Shanahan. For the first time since drafting Ryan, there were questions about whether the Falcons might soon move on from their starting quarterback.

The season caused Ryan to enter into serious re-evaluation to learn what went wrong. He broke down his mistakes on film. He got together with Shanahan for a little détente. He organized a passing game with several teammates in south Florida.

Former teammate Tony Gonzalez spoke with Ryan about the struggles he went through after his second NFL season, and the feedback seemed to resonate with the quarterback. As Gonzlaez recently told the AJC and the "We Never Played The Game" podcast, "There's nothing like getting embarrassed nationally. It hurts. And it should hurt. Then you start to turn over stones that you never would have before. You can't keep doing it the way you were before because that way didn't work."

Told of Gonzalez’s comments this week, Ryan said, “I’ve talked to Tony about that a lot. Tony’s one of the most open and honest people that you’ll ever get to know, and he’s one of my great friends, and one of the things he talked about coming back from that second year is sometimes you try to do too much, and it can wear on you and make you unproductive. It’s about striking the right balance and finding what works for you. One of the things I respected about Tony the most is the way he knew for himself what it took to get ready. He was really over the top about it. He was kind of insane about his preparation. It always struck me as: I have to find that right mix for me. That’s been a process I’ve tried to go through.”

Great athletes are born with great skills. But they become great athletes only when they recognize their weaknesses and what it takes to get to a certain level.

“When I first got here Matt wasn’t as comfortable with his back to the defense,” Shanahan said. “He was, ‘Why do I have to do a play fake? I can just stand back and throw that the same way.’ I said, ‘You’re right, you can. But if you (carry out the fake), you may get the D-line to play the run instead of just teeing off on you. The (offensive) line might get a little bit better.”

Gonzalez talked about leading the NFL with 17 drops in his second season and what that did to him. “You kind of have to go through that transformative power of crisis to get your routine down, your mind right and achieve greatness,” he said.

Ryan acknowledges he went through that. So did Quinn when the Falcons tumbled in the second half of last season, and the coach certainly noticed a change in Ryan.

“I’ve always thought Matt was a good quarterback,” Quinn said. “What I can tell you is there has been a shift, there has been a jump in his play: his intent, his ability to know where to go, his decision-making. He already knew how to play. But I totally recognize that he has gone to the next level.”

Rodgers, Brady, Roethlisberger. Has Ryan earned the right to be referenced with this elite group?

“Absolutely,” Julio Jones said. “He’s there now, ain’t he?”