Factors behind Matt Ryan’s success this season

Matt Ryan's stats have experienced a nice bump this season, but that's not solely due to improved play from the QB.

| 8 months ago
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Factors behind Matt Ryan’s success this season

Matt Ryan leads the National Football League in passing yards, is second in passing touchdowns, and is quarterback of the league’s most potent offense. The Falcons hold a commanding league in yards per game, points per game, and yards per play.

So, what’s behind this surge in Ryan’s performance? Well, I’m not even sure Ryan is playing better than he was a year ago at all.

Right now, the Falcons’ quarterback owns an overall grade of 84.9, which is only good enough for ninth in the league. This time a season ago, that mark was 84.3—pretty much the same.

The Atlanta offense has certainly been more dominant, and the play of some of the Falcons supporting cast has meant Ryan’s numbers look a lot healthier, but I’m not sure he’s actually playing any better individually.

The key thing about Pro Football Focus’ grades, especially when it comes to QBs, is that we are grading every snap a player takes, not simply the result of that play. In the box score, a touchdown pass is a touchdown pass, but we’re looking at whether it was a screen that the WR took the distance, whether it was a perfect deep bomb, was the ball location good, or did it lead the receiver into trouble that it didn’t need to? Did the QB need to escape pressure initially to even make it happen? As with anything in the game, there are so many nuanced details that can tweak and change a grade, and we try to apply as much context to the play as possible.

Ryan has always been a frustrating player to evaluate.

In a world that deals in black or white absolutes, Ryan has always been the definition of shades of gray. He has never really threatened to elevate himself into the true elite echelon of QBs, but neither has he ever really flirted with true mediocrity. Ryan has always been a “good,” top-10 quarterback prone to some very bad mistakes. He is just as capable of winning a game for his team with an outstanding drive or two late in the contest as he is losing it with a key and costly mistake.

Week 7’s game against San Diego was typical Ryan. It wasn’t any one thing—there were some fantastic throws in there, and some disastrous ones, including one that effectively threw the game away late. It was also an unusually good example of Ryan being slightly off, and Julio Jones, primarily, bailing him out, making the QB look a little better than he really deserved from the passes he threw.


With Ryan, you even get good and bad inside of the same play. This play early in the game was a pretty good example of that:

Matt Ryan off target

On 3rd-and-9, Ryan sensed the pocket collapsing in on him from his right side, and he slid away from it before resetting and finding Julio Jones, who had adjusted his route inside. There was all kinds of contact on the play, and CB Casey Hayward gets flagged for defensive pass interference, but the throw location was just a little bit off. Having done much of the hard work—subtly moving in the pocket, finding the right throw to make—Ryan left the ball too far inside and required some ridiculous work from Jones to take the ball away from the defensive back to rescue the throw.

As it turns out, it would have been rescued anyway by the penalty, but if the throw had been a couple more feet out in front of his receiver, Jones would have had a far easier catch—and Ryan’s share of the credit for those yards would have been far more equitably earned.

It’s easy for this to come across as a major slight on Ryan, but that isn’t the idea. This is extremely high-level stuff, and most quarterbacks can’t do it consistently. But it’s also what separates the Tom Bradys from the Matt Ryans. And Julio Jones making a run of those plays for him is what creates a skew in the statistics that suggests Ryan is playing a lot better this season than last year, when really we are looking at the same player making the same throws and just getting slightly different results.

We see a similar thing with the touchdown to Jacob Tamme mid-way through the second quarter.

Ryan has Tamme open on a post route against a two-high look from the defense. This is a green light for this ball to fly because the middle of the field is open, one of the QB’s first keys when he reads a defense. Ryan knows exactly what he’s looking at, keeps his eyes left as he drops back so as not to lead the safeties to his receiver, and then fires a touchdown pass as Tamme breaks inside towards the post.


But if you look at the ball location, it was again behind him with no reason to be, and it forced a very tough adjustment from the tight end to even make the catch. This goes down as a 17-yard touchdown pass for Ryan, but given the adjustment he forced from Tamme, it could easily have been dropped or broken up by safety Adam Phillips, who shouldn’t have had any involvement in the play had the pass been accurately thrown. On 3rd-and-13, that isn’t just an adjustment in Ryan’s passer rating if the ball isn’t brought in, but it’s the difference between three and seven points for the Falcons’ offense (assuming they make the field goal attempt).

Again, we are dealing with fine margins, but when a series of these all break in one direction, the resulting numbers can begin to look a little out of line with the quality of play.

Much of the criticism of Ryan last year came from turnovers, but some of those were botched snaps that get charged to the QB by default. He has definitely cut down on the number of interceptions this season, but as we have seen, the ball has been in harm’s way, and just hasn’t been picked off as regularly.

Overall, Ryan has cut down on the very poor plays. His “turnover-worthy play” percentage—the lowest-graded plays we give—this season is 0.9 percent of his snaps compared with 2.1 percent a year ago. At the other end of the scale, he has made more big-time throws—the higher-graded plays—up a full percentage point from 1.8 to 2.8 percent.

Some of that is offset by more of the slightly off-target passes we have looked at previously, but the change in his grade distribution has likely been a net gain for the offense and his stat line, even if it hasn’t resulted in a major upward swing in PFF grade, especially because Jones and the rest of the Falcons’ receivers are doing a better job this year of rescuing some of those slightly off-target passes.

Ryan has made some spectacular throws, but it would be a mistake to look at the box score numbers and assume that he has played dramatically better than a season ago. He wasn’t as bad as much of his press in 2015 indicated, and he isn’t nearly as good as much of it in 2016. As seems forever the case with Matt Ryan, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. He is once again a top-10 QB, nothing more, nothing less.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • rodrell green

    Assumptions are, you know the routes and the timing, receivers could have been off last year. Whenever he threw the ball to Tamme last year I clinched, because there was horrible communication. At least once Tamme admitted to being at fault. For better comparisons, let’s see the “Tom Bradys” show us the right way to throw the ball perfectly with pressure in their face like on the second play.

    First play also looked like it was perfectly timed, though I don’t see any particular comment about it.

  • crosseyedlemon

    On one hand your saying Ryan grades out very consistently as a top 10 QB rarely threatening to become elite or mediocre and on the other hand your saying that this consistency makes him hard to evaluate. I would assume players than run hot and cold would be much harder to get a handle on.

  • Joe Martin

    Some of these columns written by these ‘analysts’ make me question why I choose to read some of this stuff. Sam “Senior Analyst” Monson is from Ireland. He writes about and critiques players who perform at the highest level in a sport for which he has never actually played well enough to warrant our consideration of such critique. Indeed, these analyses are written as if they are straight from the Holy Football Bible. A football analyst is analogous to a Food Critic. They critique the best performers because they were unable to succeed themselves.

    To see Sam Monson critique and “grade” Matt Ryan and others is sad. Sam Monson would crap himself the second he took the ball from under center.

  • Daniel Varnadore

    I will never understand the overwhelmingly negative grades and evaluations that Matt Ryan receives. It makes me maddeningly frustrated to the point of becoming nauseous every time I hear and/or read these types of articles that critique him seemingly more so than any other QB outside of the “elite” 5 or 6 QBs, even though his record and stats provide evidence to the contrary. Granted, I am a Falcons fan, always have been and always will be…and yes I am and always will be a huge fan of his and not just for his on-field attributes. He is also one of the best(by far) in setting an example of selflessness, integrity and professionalism in victory AND defeat. He is one of the best role models for a kid that a parent could ask for. His career to this point speaks for itself since he regularly finishes as a top 10 QB who wins far more games for his team than he loses. He just broke Dan Fouts all time record for most consecutive games (46) with at least 200 yards passing. He has more passing yards than any other QB to this point in his career excluding 1 or 2 I believe. He is a model of consistency, accuracy and toughness considering he has only missed 2 games to this point and those 2 came late in his sophomore season of 09….Anyways, my rant is over. Had to vent some, but isn’t this game and sports in general awesome as to elicit this kind of passion in people?