Is it time for Falcons to consider life after Matt Ryan?

Credit: AJC

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan discusses the loss to the Saints and the late game failures on offense.

Credit: AJC

Over his first five NFL seasons, Matt Ryan orchestrated 23 game-winning drives and 16 fourth-quarter comebacks. It was the era of the two Matts — Ryan propelling the Falcons into position, Bryant booting home the winner. To borrow from a song: Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end.

Over the past five NFL seasons, this one included, Ryan has presided over eight game-winning drives and seven fourth-quarter comebacks. Over the first 12 games of this season, there have been no game-winning drives, no fourth-quarter comebacks.

You might file this under the heading of “duh” — there can’t be a game-winning drive if you don’t, you know, win the game, and the Falcons are 18-26 over the past 2-3/4 seasons. But the 2020 Falcons have had chances at GWDs and FQCBs — had Todd Gurley not fallen into the end zone against Detroit, that would’ve been one of each — and have come up empty.

They had 1:53 remaining after Chicago pulled ahead on Sept 27. They crossed midfield, whereupon Ryan overthrew Calvin Ridley. The pass was intercepted. Fox analyst Jonathan Vilma described it as “a lazy throw.”

They trailed Carolina by seven points two weeks later. With 9:34 remaining, they faced third-and-4 at the Panthers’ 5. Ryan’s pass was intercepted in the end zone. Carolina drove to the clinching field goal.

They trailed the Saints 24-19 and had two chances to pull ahead in the final two minutes. (The second was more a prayer, we concede.) Two Ryan passes into the end zone fell incomplete, though Julio Jones made a mighty leap and got a hand on the first.

Saints defenders break up a Hail Mary pass to Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones in the end zone as time expires Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Saints defenders break up a Hail Mary pass to Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones in the end zone as time expires Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Postgame discussion Sunday concerned Dirk Koetter’s decision to run Todd Gurley, who hasn’t done much since falling into the end zone, on first, second and third down deep in Saints’ territory. It’s apparent Gurley is no longer his vintage self: He’s averaging 2.6 yards per carry over his past six games. (He has had a knee issue.) Still, it was intriguing that Koetter chose that vital moment to force-feed a tailback on a one-year contract who ranks 46th among NFL rushers in yards per tote, as opposed to telling Ryan, “You’re Matty Ice. Win this one for us.”

We’ve had periodic Ryan checkups many times over his 13 seasons here. (Even in his greatest season, he had the Eric Berry Pick-6/Pick-2 game.) Most every time, he has answered the question, “What’s wrong with Ryan?” with a banner performance, after which we shut up. But, not to be cruel, he hasn’t been 35 before. He hasn’t gone three years between winning seasons before this. In the 19 games of 2016, his MVP and Super Bowl season, only once did he finish with a passer rating under 87.0. The ratings for his past five games: 85.6, 112.1, 48.5, 75.3 and 80.4.

He ranks 23rd among NFL quarterbacks in passer rating, 24th in completion percentage, 18th in yards per pass, 21st in touchdown percentage. Only Tom Brady has thrown more this season, which helps explain why Ryan ranks fourth in passing yards, but even there his production has diminished. He threw for 285 or more yards in four of the season’s first eight games; he hasn’t broken 285 in any of the past five. His completion percentage over the past three games is 52.2; his career completion percentage is 65.3.

It’s possible that this dip, like those of seasons past, is but a blip in a career that should carry him to Canton. That said, months could pass without us saying of a Ryan delivery, “That’s a bad throw.” This season has seen many of those. Indeed, the key completion on Sunday’s only touchdown drive was thrown behind Russell Gage, who made a deft adjustment. (To be fair, Ryan also hit Calvin Ridley deep while falling backwards. That was not a bad throw. That was a great one.)

We saw in the Raiders’ game how potent the Falcons’ offense can be. We saw in the two games wrapped around it why, even with Dan Quinn gone, this team remains a source of massive frustration. They played New Orleans twice. They scored one touchdown in eight quarters. They were beaten not by a Saints team headed by Drew Brees but by Taysom Hill, making his first and third NFL starts.

For all the improvements made under Raheem Morris, who’s 4-3 coming after Quinn’s 0-5, this franchise is facing a slew of cosmic questions, the central one being: How close are is a team that hasn’t been good since 2017 to getting good again? If Arthur Blank decides Ryan remains capable of taking a team to the Super Bowl, the owner might opt to re-up Morris and keep trying — yes, again — with what’s in place. If, however, what we’re seeing is the beginning of Ryan’s decline, the only real choice would be to tear it down and start again. Yes, that’s scary.

The belief in this space has been, for more than a decade, than Ryan is fully capable of winning a Super Bowl. (He came as close as any runner-up has ever come.) But even a longtime supporter cannot describe this Ryan as the Ryan of 2016 or 2012 or even 2008. This has been a lesser Ryan, and he’ll turn 36 in May.

Since drafting Ryan on April 26, 2008, the Falcons have spent one pick on a quarterback: Sean Renfree of Duke, taken in Round 7 in 2013. The guess here is that they’ll take another soon, and not in Round 7. This franchise stuck with Quinn because it believed, reality to the contrary, it could win now. When you’ve just clinched your third consecutive non-winning season, it’s time for a new plan. At some point, that plan must involve a new quarterback.

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