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Falcons vs. Chiefs: Look Out, NFL, Matt Ryan Is Ready for Monster Year

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 09:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons calls out a play against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second quarter of their season opener on September 9, 2012 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterSeptember 9, 2012

To everyone who’s been banging on Matt Ryan because he hasn’t won a playoff game in his first four seasons in the league: Stop it.

If you think Ryan can’t make the jump to elite quarterback status without that playoff win, you’re wrong. And stop it…again.

With Sunday’s thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs, Ryan showed the NFL he’s ready to be called an elite quarterback.

Ryan landed 23 passes into receivers’ hands and threw for 299 yards and three touchdown passes. He completed 74.2 percent of his passes and ran for a touchdown to boot.

Sunday was the 11th time in his career that Ryan has completed 70 percent or more of his passes. His best was an 85.7 percent performance against Green Bay in 2010. Only four times has Ryan posted a higher percentage than his 74.3 on Sunday.

The Falcons are 10-1 when Ryan eclipses that 70-percent mark, and by the looks of things, expect Atlanta to win a lot of games this season.

Ryan didn’t play in the Falcons’ final preseason game, but in their first three he completed 75 percent of his passes—twice he landed 69.2 percent and once he went for 85.7, completing 45 of 60.

Combine Ryan’s opening-week 23-of-31 performance to his three preseason games, and he’s completed 68-of-91 passes (74.7 percent) for 848 yards and six touchdowns with one interception.

Ryan only eclipsed the 70-percent mark twice last year in 20 games—16 in the regular season, three in the preseason and one in the postseason.

This year—with just Week 1 in the books—Ryan has matched that precision passing mark.

What’s changed?

It’s easy to claim natural progression of skills. Ryan is better this year because he’s got another season under his belt; but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t even come close.

It’s true, Ryan has improved in either passing yards or touchdown passes in each of his four seasons in the league. But an extra year's worth of experience can’t tell why Ryan, with a career completion percentage of 60.9 percent, is now regularly posting 70-plus-percent games.

It’s not even correct to say that Ryan is succeeding now, because he’s got a plethora of weapons to choose from. With a dream cast of Roddy White and Julio Jones split out wide, tight end Tony Gonzalez in the slot and running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers behind him, Ryan's supporting cast is the envy of the NFL.

But that same supporting cast was around last year, too. Ryan’s numbers didn’t spike in 2011.

Ryan is posting 70-percent-plus completion percentage games with regularity and moving the Falcons down the field with ease because of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Call it the Falcons’ own version of Two Men and a Truck.

Ryan and Koetter have jelled quickly. Koetter’s subtle tweaks of the Falcons offense have Ryan looking like an elite quarterback.

Koetter brings a much more diverse play-calling system to Atlanta. Gone are the days when it was easy to chart an Atlanta offense and call the plays, or at the very least its tendencies, prior to the play.

He also brings two aspects to the passing attack that were missing in prior seasons: the vertical attack and the screen pass.

Ryan completed four passes on Sunday that went for 25 or more yards. He connected on five more that were between 15 and 25 yards. That’s a sizable uptick in middle-to-deep passing for the Falcons.

Koetter also called a number of screen passes Sunday, something that rarely happened under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. And it wasn’t just running backs getting involved in the screen game. Both White and Jones caught screen passes and gained yardage doing so.

Ryan is succeeding and looking very much like an elite quarterback, as Koetter has diversified the offense—both in play-calling and in run-pass frequency—and found different ways to utilize Atlanta’s already potent stable of offensive weapons.

It won’t take too many more weeks of like-quality play for the rest of the NFL to also think of Ryan as an elite quarterback.

I, however, am already there.

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