Matt Ryan's Split Personality: Matty Ice and Melting in the Playoffs

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Matt Ryan's Split Personality: Matty Ice and Melting in the Playoffs
Al Bello/Getty Images
Last time we saw Matt Ryan he led the offense to no points in the playoffs.

There may be no quarterback in the NFL with a more perplexing reputation than Matt Ryan.

Supporters see him as "Matty Ice," a nickname which dates back to his high school days and signifies a cool customer under pressure. He is viewed as the savior of the Atlanta Falcons in the wake of ugly departures from superstar Michael Vick and disgraced coach Bobby Petrino.

Detractors point to his 0-3 playoff record and putrid performances in the big games. How can he be Matty Ice if all he does is melt when the pressure goes up?

Pundits and peers are not sure what to make of Ryan. On the NFL's Top 100 Players of 2012, Ryan did not even rank on a list that included 13 quarterbacks. ESPN's Ron Jaworski ranked Ryan No. 11 heading into the season.

So after four seasons, what kind of quarterback reputation does Matt Ryan really deserve? Let's examine.

 

Franchise Savior?

After losing their star quarterback to a dog-fighting conviction and their new head coach to cowardice, the Falcons were a 4-12 mess in 2007 and held the No. 3 pick in the 2008 draft.

They brought in the defensive-minded Mike Smith from Jacksonville to be a first-time head coach, and they immediately joined him at the hip with a franchise quarterback in Boston College's Matt Ryan; the first quarterback taken in the draft.

It was an immediate success, with Ryan throwing a 62-yard touchdown pass on his first NFL attempt. Ryan would throw for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns on his way to leading the Falcons to an 11-5 record, the playoffs, and winning the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Though 2009 was a step back, the Falcons went 9-5 under Ryan and for the first time in franchise history, Atlanta finally had back-to-back winning seasons. They claimed the top seed in the NFC at 13-3 in 2010.

The Falcons now have had four straight winning seasons in the Smith/Ryan era, and have been to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. None of these feats were ever achieved in Atlanta since the team's inception in 1966.

While researching the Green Bay Packers for the last four seasons, I came across several impressive statistics for Atlanta in the Smith/Ryan era.

Since 2008 and including the playoffs, Atlanta leads the league in average first-quarter scoring margin (+2.42 points per game), games scoring first (45), and the best record (22-0) when leading by double-digits at halftime.

Atlanta starts fast under Ryan, and they can finish effectively too. It has all the markings of a very good team, just without the postseason success to match.

Ryan has led the way in raising the expectations for Atlanta, and that is a huge step in bringing a franchise to prominence. They would have slid into obscurity after 2007 had they instead drafted Glenn Dorsey or Vernon Gholston instead of Ryan.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The comforts of home: Ryan is 26-4 as a starter in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

 

Home-Domer?

Matt Ryan's record of 43-19 (.694) as a starter puts him in rare territory through four NFL seasons. Only Joe Flacco (44-20) and Dan Marino (41-18) have won as many games as a starter in their first four seasons.

But a criticism of Ryan is that his record is too slanted towards home success in the Georgia Dome where Ryan is 26-4 (.867) compared to 17-15 (.531) on the road.

It is true that he plays considerably better at home, with 49 TDs, 17 INTs and a 98.3 passer rating compared to 46 TDs, 29 INTs and a 81.0 passer rating on the road. But most quarterbacks play better at home.

Still, there is a valid criticism that Ryan must perform better on the road for Atlanta to reach more of their goals in his career. Among "active" quarterbacks (some really are inactive contemporaries) with at least 500 pass attempts on the road, Ryan's 81.0 passer rating ranks 18th.

And while the home record is very nice, the Falcons have dropped their last two home games to Drew Brees and New Orleans, which is a big no-no if winning the NFC South is their goal every year.

They also suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers in their only home playoff game, 48-21, in 2010. Last season, after a great 14-0 start, the Falcons were shut out the rest of the way as Green Bay went on a 25-0 run to finish the game.

 

Matty Ice?

Carrying a nickname from high school to college, and then finally the NFL is a tough task, yet that's what Ryan has accomplished with "Matty Ice," which is about staying calm and cool under pressure.

It's a must for a quarterback to keep his composure under the various pressure situations that present themselves in a game each week. Being able to excel in areas where the margin for error is razor thin like the red zone, third down, and close in the fourth quarter/overtime is how a quarterback separates themselves from the pack.

I have yet to research a good red zone metric for quarterbacks, but we can look at Ryan's career performance in the other two areas.

 

Third Down

The money stat for third down is how often you convert for a first down. The goal is not to throw for 15 yards on a 3rd-and-21 play. It is about extending the drive.

Ryan has been amazingly consistent on third down in his four seasons. The attempts include passes, sacks, and scrambles (kneel downs excluded).

Matt Ryan on third down

The consistent low-40's conversion rate puts Ryan in good, Tom Brady-esque company, but a tier below elite third down performance. His best season was in 2010 when the Falcons faced the second-most third down attempts in the league (240). Ryan had 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions that season on third down.

Sacks are real drive-killers on third down, and for his career, Ryan has done a very good job of getting rid of the ball. His sack percentage is just 4.03 percent, which ranks seventh all-time among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 career attempts.

On third down, Ryan was sacked 12 times in the first eight games alone in 2011. His previous season-high was 11, and he finished being sacked 17 times on third down last year. That could explain the decrease in performance from 2010.

Though not very mobile, Ryan can get out of the pocket and scramble for a key first down a handful of times a season if the opportunity presents itself. He has 24 first downs running the ball on third down.

 

Clutch Wins

If there is an area where Matty Ice shines, it would be with his 11 fourth quarter comebacks and 16 game-winning drives in just four seasons. Ryan's 16 game-winning drives are the most any quarterback has ever had in his first four seasons.

It's hard to argue with that company. Ryan has done his share of work in the process.

There was this brilliant one-play drive with only six seconds left in 2008 to set up the winning field goal to beat Chicago.

In his second season, Ryan found Tony Gonzalez on fourth and goal from the Jets' six-yard line with the game-winning touchdown with 1:38 left. Ryan had three game-winning touchdown passes as part of his six game-winning drives in the 2010 season.

There are few wasted opportunities in the fourth quarter for Ryan when he has a chance to take control of a game.

Among the elites, Ryan fits in here. Even in defeat he often gives Atlanta a good opportunity.

  • Ryan's first two comeback losses were actually lost comebacks; games where he did everything to get a comeback win except for the win part.
  • In 2009, Jason Elam missed a 34-yard go-ahead field goal with 6:35 left against Carolina.
  • A week later Ryan threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to force overtime with the Giants, but never got the ball back in overtime.
  • Last season Roddy White had two big drops against Tampa Bay, and Julio Jones could not complete the last-second catch to force overtime in Houston.
  • After a 10-point comeback in the last seven minutes against the 2011 Saints, Mike Smith's fourth-down overtime decision backfired as Michael Turner was stuffed on 4th and 1 at the Atlanta 28.

Ryan can say he has lived up to the Matty Ice reputation when it comes to his history in the clutch.

 

Postseason Failure

What happens to Matty Ice when the postseason comes around?

It has been hard for Ryan to show how clutch he is in the playoffs when the three games he has lost have not been close enough in the fourth quarter to present that opportunity, in part because of his ineffective play for the first three quarters.

As a rookie playing his first playoff game in Arizona, Ryan took a safety on a fourth-quarter sack that gave the Cardinals a 30-17 lead. He did lead a 58-yard touchdown drive to cut it to 30-24 with 4:15 left, but Kurt Warner was able to run out the clock with a big 3rd-and-16 conversion to a receiver left wide open in the middle of the field.

No chance at glory for Ryan to lead a game-winning drive.

Two years later as the No. 1 seed, Ryan threw an interception to Tramon Williams with the game tied 14-14 and the ball at Green Bay's 26. The Packers scored a touchdown, and with just 0:10 left before halftime, Ryan made a devastating decision to force a pass that was again intercepted by Williams and returned 70 yards for a touchdown.

The Falcons never got closer than 21 points in the fourth quarter, and Green Bay rolled to a 48-21 victory.

Last season in the Wild Card Game against the Giants, Ryan failed to lead the offense to a single point. Their two points were scored by the defense forcing a safety, and twice Ryan failed on poorly-executed 4th-and-1 quarterback sneaks in Giants' territory.

Ryan has lost three games by more than 18 points in his career, and two of them were in the playoffs (27 vs. Green Bay, 22 vs. New York Giants).

There is no denying that, in all three occasions, Ryan has not lived up to his standard of play in the postseason. He has yet to throw for 200 yards in a game, and has a 71.2 passer rating.

The big problem stat has been yards per attempt (YPA). Among 95 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts in the playoffs, Ryan's 5.31 YPA ranks 92nd all time.

Only Drew Bledsoe (5.30), Kordell Stewart (5.24) and Jay Schroeder (5.01) rank below him. That's not the kind of company you want to keep in the postseason, showing the ultimate sign of struggling to get the ball down the field.

38 points on 33 drives will not get the job done in the postseason. The 1.15 points per drive is equal to what the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars produced offensively.

The scoring is even worse when you consider Ryan is charged for two return touchdowns and a safety to the opponent. Granted, the fumble return touchdown against Arizona was Michael Turner's fault on the handoff, but statistically it is credited to Ryan for being the last to have possession.

The playoff heat is exacerbated when two other quarterbacks that became starters in 2008, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco, have already been to the Conference Championship Game and Rodgers wiped out Ryan's Falcons on his way to a ring.

While Ryan has lost to two Super Bowl Champions and an oh-so-close runner-up from Arizona, these teams have not featured a murderer's row of defenses, and Ryan should have better stats and scored more points than he did.

 

Conclusion

Regardless of how bad the postseason failure has been, we should never hold three games in higher regard than the 62 in the regular season. They tell us more about what kind of quarterback Ryan is.

Going into his fifth season, Ryan still has plenty of time to turn his playoff fortunes around. To think otherwise would be akin to saying, circa August 2003, that Peyton Manning will never have playoff success.

The 2012 season will be a huge test for Ryan's career path. He has a chance to regain control of the turbulent NFC South because of New Orleans' situation.

Tony Gonzalez may be playing the final season of his Hall of Fame career, and Julio Jones is in his second season. That duo and the prolific Roddy White join a now 30-year-old Michael Turner in the backfield for probably the final time together this season, and Ryan must maximize this offense's potential.

Ryan has shown improvement, proven he can run the offense from the line, be consistent and perform admirably in key pressure situations. But his all-round game is still not up to the standard of the league's elite franchise quarterbacks.

At his absolute best, Matt Ryan may only be the ninth- or 10th-best quarterback in the NFL. That is not so much a criticism of his ability as it is a reflection of the great quarterback era we are experiencing.

For Ryan to move up, he will have to find success in the postseason. Just a great performance would be a start. Without it, his regular seasons have not been good enough to justify a lack of criticism.

It is a fine line to walk, because an increase in regular season performance will only intensify the expectations in the postseason. And that's where "Matty Ice" cannot afford any more cracks or meltdowns.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer and researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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