Is Matt Ryan Finally Shedding Playoff Choker Label?

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Is Matt Ryan Finally Shedding Playoff Choker Label?
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The 2012 NFL season brought young, inexperienced passers who proved that they belonged on a professional football field. Matt Ryan had hoped the 2012 postseason would grant him a similar opportunity. 

Ryan hadn't won in his first three tries. Yet, as he led a dramatic come-from-behind win against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday afternoon, all I could think was, "meh." 

Don't get me wrong, when facing the two biggest throws of his career, Ryan slowed his pulse and completed each one. That can't be taken away from him, and it shouldn't be.

But something was missing. The win lacked the conviction and clarity that Ryan backers were hoping for. If anything, it might have just inflamed the arguments on each side.

So, let's break it down.

 

Numbers

Ryan put up some Madden numbers with 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns during the regular season. But his 14 interceptions tied him with Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer. That trend continued in the postseason. Ryan had three touchdown passes and two interceptions against the Seahawks.

Before we condemn Ryan with a Cutler- or Palmer-ian ceiling, an analysis of those two picks is necessary. 

The first one didn't appear to be the quarterback's fault. Tony Gonzalez came to a halt while Ryan thought he was going to continue crossing, thus resulting in an easy pick for rookie Bobby Wagner. It's unknown which player made the incorrect call, so Ryan will get an incomplete, especially considering he had a linebacker breathing down his neck.

As for the second, it was a terrible decision. He threw a lofted ball to a receiver in double coverage. Some might argue that it was pass interference because the first defensive back stopped and Roddy White's path to the ball was impeded. However, the defender does enough to make the impression of adjusting to the ball to make that an easy non-call. 

An explosive offense is going to take chances. It's going to air it out against tight coverage so that Gonzalez, Julio Jones or White can make a play on the ball.

But everything about this decision was poor. The Seahawks had just scored to close within 13 points and momentum was shifting. Ryan needed to switch to game-managing mode; he should have been authorized to take a chance, but the chance had to be limited. Throwing it against double coverage when the team desperately needs to grind some clock down is not what the coaching staff had in mind.

The rest of the numbers corroborate my "meh" analysis. He threw for 250 yards (41 less than his season average) and managed 7.14 yards per attempt (which would be near the league average).

That doesn't mean that his game was poor. When compared to his previous postseason outings, his performance was a revelation. 

Year Comp. Attemp. Comp. Rate Yards Average TD Int Result
2008 26 40 65% 199 4.98 2 2 Loss
2010 20 29 69% 186 6.41 1 2 Loss
2011 24 41 58.5% 199 4.85 0 0 Loss
2012 24 35 68.6% 250 7.14 3 2 Win

Again, none of his statistics jump out at you. But maybe we shouldn't pay so much attention to the first seven numbers and focus on that last column.

Sorry, that's not going to happen. Not in today's world. This win had a lot to do with the running of Michael Turner and the defense. That can't be overlooked.

We demand a lot today from our superstars. It's not just that you win, it's how you win. 

 

Naked Eye

We knew Ryan could make all of the throws. That's why he was drafted so high. Against the Seahawks, he proved that.

He put the ball in places where only his receivers would have a chance to make the play. The pass along the sideline to Chase Coffman was excellent (and wonderful footwork by the young tight end). The ball to Gonzalez in the back of the end zone was a big-boy throw. He placed it just behind Gonzalez and allowed him to make an adjustment (which Gonzalez did, because he is Tony Gonzalez). 

However, none were as pretty as the long touchdown pass to White. The ball traveled 47 yards in the air. White never broke stride as he fell into the end zone with the ball cradled against him.

 

When the Pressure was On

After years of being burdened with his Matty Ice moniker, his calm demeanor did not betray him when the game was on the line.

He appeared as if he might be shaken when the Seahawks began their onslaught. He didn't appear to have control of the situation and wasn't comfortable as Seattle stormed to the lead.

But when Ryan was faced with the season's mortality, he got the job done. He stood tall in the pocket despite the ongoing skirmishes between multiple defenders and offensive linemen that surrounded him. First was an approximately 20-yard strike to Harry Douglas, followed by another 20-yard laser to Gonzalez.

As Matt Bryant finished off the "comeback," the burden that Ryan had been carrying dissolved away. Regardless of what Russell Wilson might have done in the last few seconds, Ryan had been given an opportunity to win a playoff game and did everything he could to do so.

Yet, the Seahawks might not have had a chance if Ryan hadn't made a poor decision or two, which tempers the excitement behind his late-game play.

 

Verdict

Matt Ryan is a star. Just not a superstar. Yet.

Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons needed the big playoff win to get people like me to quiet down (fat chance). And while I won't put Ryan in the quarterbacks-I-trust-the-most conversation, he shouldn't be labeled a choker for the time being. He played well enough for his team to win and poorly enough that it could have lost. Still, he made the big throws and deserves to be left alone.

Yet, all it will take is one blown game and the gloves will come back off. Fair warning.

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