HOUSTON — The quarterback fulfilled his potential. After years of watching him be good-not-great, he finally took the next step and became a dominant player in the NFL. A Most Valuable Player. The kind who might be able to reign in the league for years to come and will undoubtedly be back to another Super Bowl in the very near future.
No. Cam Newton, the Panthers quarterback who brought his team to last year’s championship game with a near-perfect season, then receded to mediocrity in 2016.
That’s why many are asking themselves, on the cusp of Super Bowl LI and Ryan’s potential coronation as the elite quarterback, foretold when he was drafted in 2008, whether this breakout season is an aberration or the next step in his development. Is he the quarterback who threw 38 touchdown passes and seven interceptions in 2016, or is he the quarterback who averaged 25 touchdowns and almost 14 interceptions over his first eight pro seasons?
Will the real Matt Ryan please step forward?
It’s rare that a quarterback experiences this coming-of-age season at such a late age. Ryan is 31. In pro sports, where more often than not you are what the back of your trading card says you are, not a lot of players make a significant jump at this point in their careers.
One of the rare ones who did is keeping a skeptical eye on Ryan.
“I never saw that from him before, but I saw it this year,” said Kurt Warner, a three-time Super Bowl quarterback and newly minted Hall of Famer who is now an analyst for NFL Network. “Now, is this who he’s going to be the rest of his career? Can he ascend into something real ly special? Or is this one of those one-year runs where everything goes right and you play really well and you go back to the other guy. The other guy, not that he’s bad, but what Matt did this year was special. It was unique and rare and we haven’t seen that.”
Warner didn’t even start an NFL game until he was 28 years old, a veteran of arena football. In his second season, his first as a full-time starter for the Rams, he won the league’s MVP award and the Super Bowl. It was, and remains, the NFL’s ultimate rags-to-riches story.
Ryan’s path does not include such early obscurity. He was a star at Boston College and the third overall selection by the Falcons. He’s been their starting quarterback in every game but two since that moment. And over the years, he has put up some proud statistics.
This year, though, those numbers exploded.
The Falcons will tell you that it was just a matter of everything coming together for him, from his preparation to his comfort level with the offense in his second season under coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
“What’s so cool about his season is how hard we went for it,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “When you are a really good player, to get to that next spot, that’s tough. There’s another ceiling you have to go through, to break through, to get there and he put the work in. That’s why I’ve been so impressed by Matt.”
Others will even say that it’s the pieces that revolve around Ryan that have improved this year, not him.
“Matt’s always been a great quarterback to me,” All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones said. “Matt’s been phenomenal.”
There is certainly something to be said for that thinking. But it also draws doubts about whether the performance can be sustained. Shanahan won’t be back next year, as he is expected to be named head coach of the 49ers within hours of the end of the Super Bowl. And all teams change personnel from year to year.
“There is no question Matt Ryan played at an extremely high level this year,” Warner said. “Do I think there was comfort level in the system? No question. Do I think Kyle Shanahan did an unbelievable job of meshing his talents to the game plan every week? No question. Do I think getting Mohammed Sanu to become a bone fide number two, Taylor Gabriel becoming a difference-maker, having these two backs [Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman] who are unique in their skill sets and they found ways to use them helped? Yeah, all of those things are connected.”
Warner isn’t downplaying Ryan’s remarkable season.
“I don’t think there is any question it starts with the great play of Matt Ryan,” he said of the Falcons’ march to the Super Bowl. “Yes, he benefited from some of the great things that came along with him, but bottom line to me is this team is here because of the play of Matt Ryan and how great he played this year.”
He’s just . . . curious. To see if it can continue.
“That’s what we’re all waiting to see with Matt Ryan,” Warner said. “In this day and age, there are a lot of guys who come on the scene and have that great year and then they’re not that guy the rest of their career. I’m hoping Matt is that guy and I’m hoping this year things just clicked for him and he got there and he can sustain that for the rest of his career.
“I hope this is the catalyst for Matt to be able to come into his own.”
If it’s not, though, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Regular and postseason
xPassing yards x
xPassing TDs x
xTimes sacked x
An MVP season?
Matt Ryan ranked among NFL leaders in various passing categories this season:
5,208Drew Brees, Saints
4,944Matt Ryan, Falcons
71.6Sam Bradford, Vikings
70.0Drew Brees, Saints
69.9Matt Ryan, Falcons
40Aaron Rodgers, Packers
38Matt Ryan, Falcons
117.1Matt Ryan, Falcons
Avg. yards per game
325.5Drew Brees, Saints
309.0Matt Ryan, Falcons