The NFL is a quarterback’s league, and most of this year’s large pack atop the standings have great ones playing great football.
Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, the rejuvenated Michael Vick — they’re all getting turns leading the talk for MVP, but right now none of then are sitting atop our quarterback rankings for the 2010 season.
Matt Ryan, the leader of that quiet little team with the best record in the NFC.
A THREE-YEAR PLAN
Ryan was the model of consistency in his rookie year with Atlanta, making cool, calm plays that you wouldn’t expect and carrying his college nickname of “Matty Ice” over to the pros. Few college quarterbacks were asked to do more than Ryan did as a senior at BC, where he threw 654 passes in a pro-style offense but also had 19 interceptions — a very high number for a first-round draft pick.
He must have been relieved to actually have a running game and decent pass-blocking offensive line when he got to Atlanta, two things a QB picked No. 3 overall usually don’t have much of. His rookie chart shows a player that had a very short initiation period before getting acclimated to the big leagues.
As you can see, Ryan finished his rookie season the way he started it — struggling — and for whatever reason those struggles carried over a bit to the 2009 season. Although his raw numbers were in the ballpark (87.7 rating rookie year, 80.9 as a soph), he looked a shadow of his rookie self. He graded sixth overall in 2008 but fell to 16th in 2009, and most people were identifying Joe Flacco as the better of the two sophomore quarterbacks by the end of the season.
This year, however, Ryan has not only recaptured his rookie magic but surpassed it.
In his first year, he was only asked to throw 28.2 times a game in a traditional game-manager role. But now he’s being asked to win games on his own — 37.6 attempts a game — and is doing so. While he does have a great No. 1 receiver in RoddyWhite (No. 4 in our pass ratings among WRs), the rest of his targets are a combined +0.9. His pass blockers have graded out as sub-elite throughout his career, and this year is no different (9th, +0.1).
In other words, Ryan’s spectacular 2010 isn’t the product of a system or a supporting cast, but his own doing.
Ryan’s consistency and ability to elevate his game have him on top of our quarterback rankings for the 2010 season –yes, ahead of Rivers and Vick — and well ahead of his draft-mate Joe Flacco, despite the fact that their conventional statistics are very similar. Ryan is only 12th in passer rating at 91.9, behind guys like Matt Cassel and Vince Young and just above Flacco at 90.1 But any kind of closer look at his play shows the absolute limitation of this highly-valued stat.
Our grading rewards tougher plays, bringing some depth to the raw numbers. This season, Flacco’s QB rating nose-dives from the 90s to 65.3 on throws which he attempts under pressure. He has thrown three touchdowns and two interceptions under those circumstances, and taken 16 sacks from the 94 dropbacks he faced pressure. By contrast, Ryan, who has a similar overall QB rating in the low 90s, actually sees his QB rating soar to 98.8 on passes attempted under pressure. He has taken 15 sacks on 105 dropbacks where he faced pressure, but he has thrown seven touchdowns and has yet to throw a pick.
MAKING THE TOUGH THROWS
Ryan has shown an ability to come up with clutch plays this season, and it’s tough throws he is making in clutch situations that separates him from Flacco and puts him among the elite QBs.
We only have to look to last Thursday night’s game to see evidence of that. We all saw the touchdown play to win the game with Roddy White’s controversial push of Josh Wilson to gain separation. Even with the push that left Wilson on the ground, it was still far from a gimmie throw, rolling to his left as Ryan was, but that’s not the play we’re going to focus on.
Earlier in the same drive Ryan and the Falcons faced a 3rd-and-10 from their own 20. There were 55 seconds left on the clock, the Falcons had one timeout, and trailed in the game, 21-20. Atlanta needed to come up with 10 yards.
The Falcons lined up with three wide receivers: White was split wide right, Harry Douglas in the slot to the right-hand side, and Michael Jenkins split wide left. They kept Tony Gonzalez and Jason Snelling at home, on either side of the formation to protect if it was needed and release into the flats if it wasn’t.
Baltimore countered this formation with a three-man line, six defensive backs, and a pair of linebackers. At the snap, the Ravens sent just three rushers. The corners dropped in man coverage with Ed Reed and Dawan Landry splitting the field as the deep safeties. Ray Lewis, Tavares Gooden, and Haruki Nakamura occupied the shorter zones, dropping to the first-down marker and keeping their responsibilities in front of them.
With White on the right, Baltimore put the deep range of Reed to his side, and matched slot corner Chris Carr up on Douglas. Ryan instead went to the backside, where Jenkins ran a deep out. Ryan let the ball fly from his own 10-yard line, and Jenkins was able to haul in the ball at the Atlanta 44. The pass traveled 34 yards downfield and was dropped in between the trailing coverage of Ladarius Webb and safety Dawan Landry, who couldn’t find the speed to get there over the top. Jenkins successfully got his hands to the ball, gained control, and dragged his feet as he went out-of-bounds.
Atlanta, first and foremost, needed 10 yards to convert on third down and keep the chains moving. But with 55 seconds remaining and half a field to cover to get into field goal range, they really needed much more to stay ahead of the clock, and maintain a realistic chance of winning the game. They gained 34 yards on a pin-point accurate throw by Ryan to the sideline that not only required accuracy and timing, but a not-insignificant amount of arm strength to deliver.
This play wasn’t an isolated event, a fluke play he hasn’t replicated in other games this season. We have more than a dozen more plays graded so far this season with the same positive grade that play earned him, half a dozen of which have come on third down.
A MAN WHO NEEDS A GOOD PUBLICIST
Ryan’s clean-cut image landed him a Gillette shaving ad at the start of his sophomore year, but that so-so second year seemed to take him out of the discussion of the NFL’s franchise quarterbacks.
And the same thing has happened here in 2010. Ryan’s so-so passer rating and prior reputation as a game-manager are masking a truly remarkable season. He’s playing as well as guys like Brett Favre and Drew Brees did in their legendary 2009 seasons, and maybe even better.
He is playing at his best under duress, and when the game is on the line he is coming up with huge plays to keep his team alive.
He might not be getting all the accolades, but he’s getting the wins — and we’re sure he’ll take that trade, even if it’s not getting him jobs as a product pitchman anymore.