It's been four years since the Falcons selected Matt Ryan third overall in the NFL draft, and while he's achieved a moderate level of success in his time in Atlanta, the former Boston College standout hasn't become the player we all hoped he would—at least not yet.
When Ryan led the Falcons to one of the most improbable playoff berths in league history in his rookie year, many believed it was only a matter of time before he became one of the best in the game, perhaps ever. If there was ever a quarterback to lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl, it was Ryan.
There was no reason to question that notion at the time. After all, he saved the franchise from what was supposed to become a prolonged dark age following Michael Vick's incarceration. His ability to put the team on his shoulders and raise them back to prominence as quickly as he did made him a local hero, and rightfully so.
But now, after three-straight playoff losses, that confidence the fans shared over their franchise quarterback has waned substantially.
The future in Atlanta, while still promising, doesn't look quite as bright anymore.
While Ryan has cemented himself among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league, the Falcons are going to need more from him to take the next step. What the franchise needs is for him to be elite, and elite QBs aren't measured by what they do in the first 16 games of the season—it's what they do beyond that point that matters.
Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees—the one thing they all have in common is their ability to raise their game at the most important times, namely the postseason. Ryan, who's failed to amass 200 passing yards in any of his three playoff appearances, has yet to accomplish that.
This isn't to say that Ryan doesn't have the ability or opportunity to become one of the best in the NFL, nor that he deserves all the disparagement for Atlanta's problems. The team does have other holes, but as the leader, the quarterback has to take on a great amount of responsibility.
And given the incredible amount of talent he's been given to work with—specifically Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner and Julio Jones—his expectations have to be raised even higher.
With a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter—a man known for his expertise in the passing game—and another season surrounded by premium talent, Ryan needs to elevate his game in 2012 to prove his worth. And with some uncertainty surrounding their defense, the Falcons may need to lean more heavily on their offense next year than they have in the past.
Even though Ryan's role as the starting QB in Atlanta isn't at risk, it's hard to imagine he will ever reach his potential if it doesn't happen in the next several years. And if the Falcons continue to fall on their faces in the playoffs, impatience will grow prevalent. And when the blame starts to circulate, the quarterback—along with the head coach—generally takes most of the blame.
Ryan may still be young, but the clock is ticking.
Andrew Hirsh is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh