He’s the best player in franchise history. That franchise has traded him for a third-round draft pick. If you’re thinking Matt Ryan deserved better … well, what’s worse than remaining employed by the Falcons?
At some point the Falcons had to move past Ryan, their quarterback since 2008. This time a week ago, they’d given no indication that such a massive moment was near. Then a Houston grand jury chose not to indict Deshaun Watson, who’s facing 22 lawsuits for sexual assault and harassment. Before he was a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Texans and a national champion at Clemson, Watson of Gainesville, Ga., was a Falcons ball boy.
The Falcons made their pitch to Watson on Wednesday. On Thursday, he chose the Cleveland Browns. This ushered the Falcons into the land of unintended consequences. The only way the Falcons could have added Watson was to delete Ryan, a loyal servant through 14 years of fun, frolic and blown leads.
It’s understandable the Falcons, who are rebuilding even though they haven’t quite fessed up to it, would have preferred Watson, who’s 26, to Ryan, who turns 37 in May. By embarking on a whirlwind chase and getting outpitched, the Falcons managed to straddle the worst of both worlds. They didn’t get Watson. They ticked off Ryan. Now they have neither.
Ryan is bound for the Colts, who once employed Peyton Manning but by last season had been reduced to hoping against hope that Carson Wentz would come good. He didn’t. They dumped him, thereby becoming the NFL’s best team without a decent quarterback. When the Browns landed Watson, former Cleveland incumbent Baker Mayfield asked to be traded to Indianapolis. Instead the Colts hooked Ryan, whose worst pro season trumps Mayfield’s best, for a Round 3 pick. (The Texans banked three Round 1 picks for Watson.)
At this moment, the Falcons have no quarterback you’d trust to start an NFL game. (They announced Monday they’d signed Marcus Mariota, who’ll be on his third team in four years.) They hold the eighth pick in next month’s draft, which wouldn’t appear to include a QB of immense promise. They just went 7-10 despite being outscored by 146 points on the season. Those seven victories were a function of having Ryan, who was working without Julio Jones, offloaded to the Titans, and Calvin Ridley, who took a break due to mental health issues.
An NFL team cannot win big without a competent quarterback. When Ryan arrived in Flowery Branch, the Falcons – in business since 1966 – hadn’t managed consecutive winning seasons. They had five winning seasons over his first five years. In 2016, he was the NFL’s MVP. He led the Falcons to a 25-point lead against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Being the Falcons, they endeavored to lose.
If the Ryan of subsequent seasons wasn’t quite Ryan the MVP, he was never terrible. He could throw the ball. He could lead a team. He could win a close game at the end. With everything around him falling to pieces, he remained a pro’s pro. He started every game save three for this franchise over 14 seasons. In the span of six days, Ryan went from being the best thing about the Falcons to the reason the Colts envision him doing for them what Matthew Stafford did for the Rams.
Surely Ryan shares that vision. With the Falcons, he slogged through two winning seasons over the past nine. He never complained. He didn’t think about being elsewhere until the Falcons cast goo-goo eyes at a younger model. Now he’s elsewhere. Freddie Freeman’s a Dodger. Matt Ryan’s a Colt. What in the wide world of sports is going on?
In the grand scheme, this might benefit both parties. Ryan has a real chance to play meaningful games. The Falcons don’t have to bother with a succession plan, which rarely work. The $40 million dead-cap hit (money counted for a player no longer on a team) that comes from trading Ryan makes landing a semi-established NFL quarterback – a Mayfield or a Jimmy Garoppolo – problematic, but a woeful season might position them to land Alabama’s Bryce Young in the 2023 NFL draft. For the Falcons, that might constitute a succession plan: get awful and hope to get lucky.
Things happen in sports. Tom Brady leaves New England for Tampa Bay. Joe Montana finishes his career in Kansas City. A certain first baseman signs with the Dodgers, the team the Braves had to get past en route to the World Series. With a player of exalted eminence, parting is never easy. If nothing else, the Falcons ripped off the Band-Aid. That’s giving them way too much credit, though.
The franchise jettisoned its franchise quarterback. This team is legendary for finding silly ways to do things. This is among the silliest. Enjoy that third-round pick, folks.