Much has been made of the mythical "rookie wall" in the NFL and whether it exists or if it's just a metaphor for poor rookie play down the stretch as team's produce better game plans for impact rookies.
While many rookies this year denied its impact, one needs to only look at those that came before them and their coaches to realize it's more than just a fancy way to say, "Hey, coach, I'm tired."
The question in Atlanta is whether quarterback Matt Ryan experienced a fatigue factor at the helm of a team headed to the playoffs and increased exposure in game planning film for defenses as the Atlanta Falcons barreled toward the conclusion of the regular season.
When asked about his play in the last quarter of the season following the last game of the regular season against the St. Louis Rams, Ryan said, "You never know what to expect, you hear so much talk about the rookie wall...you're going to it...I don't think I have."
If there's one thing that Falcons' fans have learned this season about their young quarterback it's that he doesn't make excuses. He has always taken responsibility for what occurs on the football field, whether it's deserved it or not.
An admirable trait indeed, but is he being completely honest with himself?
Dennis Dillon wrote a fantastic article for the Sporting News' website in November of 2007. In it he examines the rookie wall and speaks with players to get their thoughts on whether or not the wall exists and to gauge its impact.
The result is a resounding "Yes!"
Jevon Kearse said in his outstanding rookie season in 1999 with the Titans that he reached November and the day-to-day aspects of the season became an absolute grind. He reached a point in the season where he approached coach Jeff Fisher and asked for two days off to lounge around his home. The price he was willing to pay: A portion of his bonus money.
Last season, Texans' rookie defensive tackle Amobi Okoye looked forward to his bye week with great anticipation, saying, "I've been waiting for this for the past two weeks. They brag about me being 20 years old and being in the NFL, but right now I tell you what—I don't feel like I'm 20 at all. I feel like probably 35."
Much was made of Okoye's youth entering the season. At 19, he was the youngest player ever drafted in the first round in the NFL. For a player that has thrived as the youngest player on his team (at 16, he was the youngest player not only on the University of Louisville team but in the entire NCAA), the professional season and its community work, meetings, practices, studying, and actual game playing took his body by storm.
Of the wall, he said, "Hit it? I ran into that wall headfirst, man."
New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, following a game in December, said, "Well, as I said, it is a long season. It is a lot longer than any college season. So, when you come into the National Football League you can't really prepare for the length and the intensity of the season."
Ryan was drafted for his intelligence and his preparation. He clearly takes his role, and the work needed to be successful, seriously. But when you look at the last quarter of the season, three things stand out:
- Of the last three teams played in the 2008 season, only one had a losing record (St. Louis at 2-14). Of the other three, one made the playoffs (Minnesota), one was in the hunt until the end (Tampa Bay) and one finished the season at .500 (New Orleans). The quality of that four-game stretch was sound, but was it any better than any of the other three quarters of the season? The first quarter featured games against Tampa Bay and Carolina. The second quarter featured games against Chicago and Philadelphia, and the third quarter featured games against New Orleans, Denver, Carolina, and San Diego. While there was more on the line in the last quarter of the season, it was no tougher than any other part of the season.
- There was a decline in Ryan's numbers. His completion percentage trended down with 72.7, 65.2, 54.2, and 47.6. In the first 12 games of the season, he threw five interceptions, which matched what he totaled in the final four games of the season. He added two more in the first round playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Also, his quarterback rating was spotty at best (99.9, 57.5, 84.4, and 49.8).
- The last game of the regular season for Ryan in his senior season at Boston College was 12/1/07. He and his team had an expansive break before playing in the Champs Sports Bowl 27 days later. The date when Ryan's numbers clearly dropped off: 12/14/08, the same date that his body was possibly telling him that his season was over.
There are other factors here. The offensive line's protection began to break down, allowing seven sacks in the final five games (the fifth game being the playoff loss to the Cardinals). With an entire season of film on Ryan, it's also conceivable that the things that worked well for him, including the lack of exposure to teams early on, were no longer working against better prepared defenses.
But at the end of the season, if Ryan says he didn't hit the wall, his play over the course of the season has earned him the right to be believed. It also earned him the Rookie of the Year Award. What is also means is that the notoriously studious quarterback will spend the entire offseason determining what went wrong as the '08 season closed.
Mechanics? He'll work with quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to solve that one. Defensive game plan? He'll study hours of film with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to figure out what he missed. Better timing with his receivers? Check, he'll implore receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins for a few extra offseason games of catch.
In his rookie wall comments, Belichick added, "It was never as bad as the first year because at least you know what to expect, you know how to pace yourself and both mentally and physically can gear up for it."
He concluded saying it was a learning experience and you can only hope to grow from it.
2008 was filled with learning experiences for Matt Ryan. Throughout the season he displayed his ability to learn from his mistakes not only game-to-game but also play-to-play.
Though he won't admit, he's likely to add better conditioning to his offseason checklist. The roadblocks that appeared in the journey of the '08 season for Ryan will be fewer in '09 because he's shown that ability to learn from everything.
As he said following the St. Louis game, "Showing up to work has been fun. It's not pulling teeth to come in."
The sky is still the limit for Ryan and the Falcons. He'll put his work in and because of that defensive coordinators and players around the league may enjoy their jobs a little less.
This article originally appeared on the Atlanta Falcons Examiner page. To view, go here.