Matt Ryan, the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, had a very good rookie season in 2008 (this was before we knew that rookie quarterbacks could do great things, a la Cam Newton, and we only expected them to be so-so). He looked like he could be, if not the face of next-gen quarterbacks in the league, one of the new wave’s envoys.
In Atlanta, he was responsible for scrubbing away the rotten stink of the Michael Vick dogfighting era. In his rookie season, it looked like he would do that and so much more.
So what’s happened since then?
Let me stop for a moment to talk about the deception of athletes' numbers versus performances witnessed with the naked eye. I’ve long struggled with which one I trust more, and it differs from sport to sport.
However, I believe that in football, a guy that passes the eyeball test is legitimately good, and if the numbers back it up, that’s fine too.
Here’s an example: Ndamukong Suh doesn’t put up great sack numbers, but if you just watch him play, you’ll know just how much he affects the outcome by drawing double-teams, clogging running lanes and so forth. His worth on the field doesn’t always show up in numbers.
Baseball players, to provide a counterexample, can be entirely defined by their statistics. If a hitter ekes out a measly .200 batting average, he’s just that: an average player. But back to Matt Ryan.
Matt Ryan puts up great statistics. Last season, he threw for 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns while only throwing 12 interceptions. He also completed an okay 61.3 percent of his passes. By all numerical measures, he had a very good season.
But did you see him?
No professional athlete I’ve ever watched inspires less confidence in the viewer while he’s playing.
When he drops back into the pocket, my mind immediately races to negative outcomes for the play. I picture lost fumbles, sacks, interceptions, under-thrown balls. This isn’t a conscious response; his physical presence on the field brings these visceral, negative thoughts to mind. How do you account for that?
And I know I’m not the only person who feels this way about Matt Ryan’s career.
His nickname, Matty Ice, has become something of a derisive joke, along the lines of Mark Sanchez’s disastrous “Sanchise” nickname. He and the Falcons have been called overrated plenty of times, but they’ve never done anything to disprove the brand. Last year’s 24-2 defeat at the hands of the New York Giants in the playoffs was one of the most embarrassing losses I’ve ever seen.
In a way, Matt Ryan has come to symbolize this entire era of Atlanta Falcons football. They’re good, but not great. They do just enough, but never more. They’ll get to the playoffs, and get embarrassed. If an NFL team only goes as far as its quarterback can take it, as the conventional thinking goes, then what does that say about Matt Ryan?
If he’s ever going to, this season must be the one in which Matt Ryan can mesh together these two strands of his career: the raw numbers versus what we actually see happening on the field. This will be the fifth year of his career, and he can only stay part of the echelon of “promising young quarterbacks” for so long.
Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and (probably) Robert Griffin III are all knocking quite loudly at the door. It’s time for Matt Ryan to decide if he belongs in the club. If not, he’ll be escorted out very shortly.
The numbers look great on paper, but football games aren’t played on paper. In fact, only one football stat carries weight in the record books, and it’s the one Matt Ryan so crucially lacks: postseason wins.
Lucas McMillan writes for FootballSchedule.me. For the latest Atlanta Falcons news, commentary and schedule information, visit FootballSchedule.me. Follow Football Schedule on Facebook and Twitter @FBSchedule.