He only threw for 3,705 yards, something just eight quarterbacks bettered.
He only managed 28 touchdowns, five others had more.
He, of course, is Matt Ryan. And he’s a player fans and media pundits alike seem to be divided on.
When I had him up at number seven in my top 101 players of 2011, I expected some criticism and it came. How could he be above Tom Brady after the Patriot passer posted one of the greatest statistical seasons we’re ever likely to see? How could he better the great Peyton Manning who once again carried the Colts to the playoffs? How could Michael Vick be so far behind with all those bombs and highlight reel plays?
The short answer is pretty simple: Ryan was better than anyone is prepared to give him credit for.
When you really break down a roster, there may not be a team with a more inflated record than the 13-3 Falcons – on talent, anyway. They won a lot of close games, with a lot of clutch plays but for those looking past the euphoria of winning, they had a lot of holes. The offense couldn’t get the run game going against better defenses like Baltimore, and it didn’t have the firepower to go strike for strike with the more explosive offenses like New Orleans and Green Bay.
So the Falcons had to limit their opponents opportunity, and keep clean a back seven that struggled in coverage (particularly the linebackers and safeties). They had to run a ball-control offense without a running game that could consistently impose itself on the better teams. It meant they needed Matt Ryan to be extremely efficient. Slowly but surely moving the ball down the field, making the kind of completions that just don’t show up on the stat sheet in a way that represents their value on the game.
I looked back at our 2010 grading of the No. 3 overall pick from the 2008 draft, and the amount of good throws on third down blew me away. There were some utterly breathtaking ones like with 7:40 left in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay in Week 13. To throw a ball like that on 3rd and 20 (and you really have to watch it to truly appreciate it) in that situation is remarkable. That he was able to follow it up by throwing a touchdown on third down on the same drive, while running to his left (remember he’s a right handed quarterback) gave you a true appreciation for the Matty Ice nickname he’s been bestowed with.
Those plays stick out, but the staple of the Falcons’ offense was less memorable, though almost as impressive. Take the Bengals game in Week 7. Atlanta had surrendered a big lead, and were at 3rd and 5 from the opposition’s 33 yard line. Cincinnati sent six men after Ryan who kept his calm, stepped up into the pocket, and lofted a perfect pass over the head of a defender to Tony Gonzalez on a corner route. Falcons score, take the lead and never look back.
Or what about the Ravens game. The Falcons fell behind and had just 1:05 left to turn it around. With two incompletions after a pressure and a drop, it was 3rd and 10. If Ryan doesn’t hit Michael Jenkins on an out route, the game over. He does with a sublime throw to the sidelines. The Falcons go on to win the game. Over and over again Ryan produced on third down, and it’s a big reason why the Falcons had the second highest conversion rate in that spot (behind the Saints).
I know what you’re thinking though. All the top quarterbacks excel on third down, and they do (to varying degrees). I looked at the six quarterbacks I felt had the strongest 2010, went through our grading records and charted all the positive plays they made on third down. Guess who made the most? For those that don’t want to guess here’s the table:
Quarterbacks, Positive Plays on 3rd Downs
3rd Down Positive Plays
% of Positive Plays on 3rd Down
While Ryan may not be throwing the ball deep down the field, or put up numbers like the rest, he’s doing some great work on key downs that facilitated the Falcons’ offense being more successful than it seemed to have the right to be.
Blitz at your own peril
It’s not just on third down that he earns the Matty Ice moniker. After a 2009 where he struggled when blitzed, he returned to his remarkable rookie form and managed to better it. You may have read our Beating the Blitz article, but if you didn’t here’s a quick snap shot: only Aaron Rodgers finished with a higher grade than Ryan when teams blitzed him. And teams blitzed him a lot, with only four quarterbacks blitzed more as a percentage of their drop backs.
His completion percentage was again in the upper echelons, with a 61.57% score being good enough for sixth best in the NFL. While his ratio of touchdowns to interceptions fourth best in the entire league (with only Eli Manning throwing more TDs when blitzed). Plenty of quarterbacks struggle or make mistakes when blitzed, but Ryan kept his cool. Much like he did when pressure got to him.
Coping with pressure
The Falcons did a relatively good job of keeping pressure away from Ryan. He wasn’t given as easy a ride as a Mark Sanchez, Tom Brady or even Matt Hasselbeck, but nor was he bombarded with it like a Jay Cutler, Josh Freeman or Derek Anderson. When it came to completion percentage, Ryan was in the top ten on the 203 plays he faced pressure, but that was hardly earth-shattering.
What was so impressive was how Ryan didn’t let pressure force mistakes from him. Pressure is what turns good quarterbacks into quivering messes. An All-Pro suddenly becomes mortal, and a mortal suddenly becomes a free agent. In some respects, how a player deals with pressure defines them, because eventually you’re going to face it and eventually you’re going to have to make a play.
The facts are when Ryan was pressured, he thrived. He only threw one interception while completing 10 touchdowns when a defender made life uncomfortable for him. Amazing numbers that were quite comfortably the best when it came to:
- lowest percentage of pressured plays that were picked off
- highest percentage of pressured plays that went for touchdowns
- best ratio of touchdowns to interceptions
Now, numbers aren’t everything, and he did fall behind Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning in our grading of players under pressure (Ryan was third). But if the only people ahead of you in a list are the reigning Super Bowl MVP and one of the greatest players to ever play the game, then you’re in very good company.
Better Than You’d Think
There is still the murky issue of not having won a playoff game. That’s going to continue to hang over him until it changes, but it shouldn’t take away from a season that was so much better than many of the base stats would ever have you believe.
It’s why Ryan isn’t so much overrated, as he is underrated. Many are willing to call him one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, but throwing in that “young” does a disservice to how good he is right now. Now he needs to add to the breadth of his work in the NFL, but can’t we just appreciate how good he was last year, rather than letting some stats and a couple of bad throws against Green Bay re-write it? After all, one game doesn’t define a season.
Some people are given their nicknames, others earn it. You break down what Ryan does against the blitz, when pressure is on him, and on third downs, and he truly is Matty Ice. That kind of clutch play makes him so much better than people seem prepared to believe.