It’s the best time to be an NFL quarterback with peers Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford also ensuring financial security. It was just a year ago that Peyton Manning and Drew Brees signed huge deals.
The odds that this entire group lives up to these contracts are not good, but Ryan feels like one of the safest bets. Ultimately, quarterbacks are paid for what the team thinks they can do in the future, but strong past performance can help set the market value on how much they deserve.
Still, any time such a big contract gets signed, there will be skeptics. The player’s flaws will be poked at. Ryan has not had much postseason success, with a 1-4 record, but he should have plenty of years left to turn that around.
We know a quarterback’s start is not indicative of how he’ll finish his career, but what about when the start is really good? It’s not common to see a star fade away so quickly.
If we stopped every quarterback’s career after five seasons, who would be the best quarterbacks in NFL history and where would Ryan rank? You may be stunned by the results. At the very least, it will be an enlightening look into young quarterbacks.
Matt Ryan’s Case: The Good and the Bad
Legends tend to be remembered fondly for their best days, but not everyone starts out so legendary. To begin this exercise, we must first present the facts of Ryan’s case as a top quarterback through five seasons.
Ryan’s five-year start in Atlanta has been historically great in many ways. Along with head coach Mike Smith, the two arrived in Atlanta in 2008 in the wake of controversy between the Michael Vick dog-fighting case and the disgraceful exit of coach Bobby Petrino.
All Ryan and Smith have done is lead the Falcons to a new level of respectability with five consecutive winning seasons. That includes two No. 1 seeds in the NFC (2010 and 2012). This franchise, dating back to its 1966 roots, had never had consecutive winning seasons before Ryan took over as the face of the franchise.
But how much has Ryan really contributed to the team’s success? The following stats show where he ranks among all quarterbacks through five seasons in NFL history. Rate stats require a minimum of 1,000 attempts. No AAFC stats are included. Data is for the regular season unless noted otherwise.
From here on out, most statistical references will be based on the first five years of each quarterback’s career. If he mostly sat on the bench for three years like Tony Romo (2003-05), that’s still his first three years. This is not based on years as a starter.
In addition to these stats, Ryan ranks second in NFL history (all seasons) in turnover rate (2.81 percent). He ranks fourth in fumble rate (0.78 percent) and sixth in sack percentage (4.11 percent). Again, those three stats are based on all career numbers rather than just the first five seasons.
Ryan’s sack numbers are so consistent that he has the smallest range of sack percentage (3.77-4.39 percent) among all quarterbacks since 1970. He knows how to get rid of the ball and protect it when he has it.
Ryan has the most wins (56) in the regular season of any quarterback through five years, largely thanks to his 23 game-winning drives, which put him on pace for that record. He also ranks third behind just Dan Marino and Peyton Manning in yards and touchdowns.
So, this would all sound like Ryan is a top-three quarterback if you froze time after five seasons, right?
Not quite. The era Ryan in which Ryan plays dictates a lot of his gaudy statistics. His increased volume stats are the result of starting 78 games. Only Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco have started the maximum 80 games. However, should we not credit Ryan for starting right away and staying very healthy with only two missed starts due to injury?
As for the rate stats, we know passing efficiency is higher than ever in today’s game. Take a look at the leaders in passer rating through five seasons (minimum 1,000 attempts):
There’s an obvious slant toward the modern era. Even at the top, the passing climate was different for Marino than it was for Kurt Warner, which was even different at his peak (1999-01) than it was for Aaron Rodgers in 2008-09.
Ryan’s 90.9 passer rating is a full point higher than Milt Plum (89.9), but Plum did it back in 1957-61 when the league averages were much worse. That’s why at Pro-Football-Reference, Plum’s Passer Rating Index, which adjusts for era, is 122 for his first five seasons. Ryan’s is only 109, which is still above average (designated as 100), but nowhere near as lofty as his rank of sixth would suggest.
If we do a defensive-adjusted passer rating (DAPR) for Ryan, we can better compare him to other quarterbacks. I have never written a full explanation of DAPR, but essentially it is taking a quarterback’s passing stats and subtracting them from each of his opponent’s season passing stats to find the difference he made statistically on their passer rating.
Applying the iterative method and adjusting each defense for each quarterback would make this even better, but let’s stick with the lone defensive adjustment for now.
Let’s say Quarterback A had a passer rating of 105.0 on 45 attempts against a defense with a defensive passer rating of 75.0. Quarterback B had a passer rating of 115.0 on 20 attempts against a defense with a defensive passer rating of 105.0. In theory, Quarterback A should have a much higher DAPR. Not only did he play a much tougher defense, but he played very well over a larger volume of plays than Quarterback B.
Without pounding away on the concepts, here are some DAPR numbers for 29 notable quarterbacks through just their first five regular seasons. The “Games” represent all games in which the quarterback threw at least one pass.
Wow. Johnny Unitas, Marino and Ken Anderson were embarrassing defenses right away. Think of it as these quarterbacks, on average, increased their opponent's defensive passer rating by at least 1.27 points after playing them. Anderson's 1974 season alone was 31.14. He followed it up with 29.10 in 1975. No one had a higher total DAPR than Marino (90.49) after five seasons.
You do not want to be in the negative on this list, but five Super Bowl winners actually were, with no one worse than Terry Bradshaw, who was often horrific from 1970-74. Without that first Super Bowl win, which came after Joe Gilliam was demoted to backup, there may not have been any more starts for Bradshaw in Pittsburgh.
Getting back to Ryan, you see that he’s been solid but not as spectacular as his numbers suggest. He’s not even ahead of Joe Namath, who was inappreciably great in his first five years, which made up his AFL run (1965-69).
Ryan’s DAPR by season breaks down as 3.55 (2008), 2.23 (2009), 11.62 (2010), 6.24 (2011) and 10.39 (2012). One of the reasons his numbers aren’t as great when adjusted is that Ryan has played few elite defenses in his career.
In five regular seasons, Ryan’s only played 22 games against teams with a defensive passer rating under 80.0. By comparison, Peyton Manning played 25 such teams in his first two seasons (32 games in 1998-99).
We also know Ryan is 34-7 (.829) at home, but that only includes a 5-5 record against playoff teams. Ryan is 7-11 (.389) on the road against playoff teams. That’s a lot of home success against soft competition. By comparison, Joe Flacco is 10-6 at home against playoff teams and 13-16 (.448) on the road (including the Super Bowl win on a neutral field). That includes a lot of good performances since 2010.
Ryan’s stats have not been quite as gaudy against enough tough competition for his DAPR to be more elite. This also does not look good for him in comparison to Flacco.
An advanced metric like ESPN’s QBR likes Ryan a lot, though it does not adjust for opponent. Four of his seasons rank in the top 28 since 2008, while his 2012 (74.5) and 2008 (74.1) seasons rank 12th and 13th respectively. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are the only other quarterbacks with multiple appearances in the top 28, so he must be doing something right.
A function of QBR is Win Probability Added (WPA), which is a stat Ryan has been great at if you look at it (per game) from Advanced NFL Stats. Among qualified quarterbacks since 2008 (minimum 50 games), Ryan has been fifth in WPA per game (0.22):
Again, we see Ryan in that elite company in the top five with Peyton, Brees, Rodgers and Brady.
A big reason why Ryan does so well at WPA is his excellence in clutch situations. Ryan not only has the most comebacks (16) and game-winning drives (23) for a quarterback through five seasons, but his record at game-winning drive opportunities, 23-14 (.622), is the best in NFL history (minimum 30 games):
That’s some company. Tied or down by 1-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime, when you put the ball in Ryan’s hands, good things happen more often than not. However, he was not always so impressive in these situations or deserving of the "Matty Ice" nickname. His four game-winning drives as a rookie each consisted of one completion, but since then Ryan has legitimately become a tough quarterback to stop with the game on the line.
Not only does Ryan do a good job of putting his team ahead, but he keeps them ahead with the four-minute offense. That’s killing clock with the lead when most teams are satisfied to hand it off three times and punt.
Forget the two-minute offense. Ryan is the master of the one-minute drill with five of them to win games in his career. That’s the most since 1981 and perhaps all time. His latest came in the playoffs against Seattle when he had just 25 seconds left at his own 28.
Kicker Matt Bryant’s been a great asset, but Ryan's still driving Atlanta down the field in a hurry in a way we rarely see.
But the playoffs have been an issue with poor yards per attempt (6.58), problems scoring and one of the most dreadful pick-sixes (against the 2010 Packers before halftime) in playoff history.
It all amounts to a very good start with plenty of success directly resulting from his efforts, but the detractors will always have a point when it comes to turning these top seeds and playoff berths into more success.
Now that we understand Ryan’s case, let’s get into the process of finding the best five-year starts in NFL history. Much of the groundwork was laid when I tried to rank Joe Flacco as an all-time quarterback in March, producing this list of the top 64 quarterbacks in NFL history:
I already regret having ranked Flacco five spots ahead of Ryan. They should be tied at the hip, which is how you can picture them as we go through this exercise. With that said, if Ryan was good enough to be 58th on the all-time list, then obviously there are only 57 players worth considering for the best five-year starts.
Remember, we will make our way backwards through the list, finding quarterbacks to rank ahead of Ryan.
Matt Hasselbeck sat for two years behind Brett Favre. Philip Rivers sat for two years behind Drew Brees, so his three years (2006-08) don’t quite beat Ryan’s five. The same can be said for Tony Romo’s first two years of actually playing (2006-07). That’s just not enough time or accomplishment.
Bernie Kosar was in many big playoff games in the '80s, but he wasn’t nearly as prolific as Ryan.
Then there’s the case of Flacco, who obviously had the big push with his Super Bowl run, Super Bowl MVP and overall big-game performances from the last few years. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the rings.
Of the 47 Super Bowl wins, 16 were won with a quarterback in his first five seasons. The only quarterbacks with multiple championships in five years are Troy Aikman, Tom Brady (three) and Ben Roethlisberger.
Just on principle and to limit the angry comments, we’ll put those three above Ryan even though he has some credibility in each case. What we don’t have to do is put one-time winners like Jim McMahon, Mark Rypien, Terry Bradshaw and Eli Manning ahead of him. Those players have too many holes in their early resumes to stack up to Ryan’s start.
Back to the list, Don Meredith’s best days came in seasons six-through-nine, so he’s out. Dave Krieg only had 192 passes in his first three years in Seattle. For Arnie Herber, stats didn’t even exist in his first two seasons (1930-31). Frank Ryan only started 18 games in his first five years. John Hadl had an abysmal rookie season and threw 64 passes in year two.
It took Rich Gannon a long time to establish himself. Steve McNair was on a leash early on for Jeff Fisher. George Blanda saw nearly as much play as kicker and linebacker as he did quarterback in Chicago. Roman Gabriel started with a mediocre record (19-17-1), completed 50.4 percent of his passes and had 41 touchdowns to 39 interceptions. That’s too much of an even distribution of good and bad.
As Chase Stuart of Football Perspective notes, Daryle Lamonica went 17-1 as a starter in 1963-67, but most of that success came in one year with the 1967 Raiders. That’s not enough, no matter how interesting it is.
Bert Jones had a miserable two-year start, but he was pretty fantastic from 1975-77, including three playoff appearances (all losses) and a league MVP for his 1976 season, which is a better season than any of the 10 Flacco and Ryan have had. Though, with two down years and no playoff success, we’ll keep Jones’ start behind the 2008 draft class for now.
Boomer Esiason was very good from 1984-88 with an MVP, Super Bowl appearance and 8.10 yards per attempt. Let’s keep him in the conversation. Joe Theismann drops off for not doing anything relevant until 1979. Again, Joe Namath’s AFL run was very solid, but it's still hard to overlook his 104 interceptions even by AFL standards.
Charlie Conerly had an excellent rookie season (1948), but he never quite matched that volume with efficiency again in his career.
Randall Cunningham was sacked 248 times in five years as a “third-down specialist” for some time in Philadelphia. Playoff success? There was none. Donovan McNabb had some playoff wins for the Eagles, but much of his success came on the back of Jim Johnson’s defense.
John Brodie didn’t do much early on in San Francisco before Y.A. Tittle was traded to the Giants. Phil Simms battled injury and subpar play to remain New York’s starter. He was validated by a Super Bowl win in 1986, but that was his seventh season.
Bob Waterfield came out swinging with a championship and MVP as a rookie in 1945. However, his 1947 season was awful and Jim Hardy was the better passer on the 1948 Rams. Soon after, Norm Van Brocklin would field a duo with Waterfield and also outplay him.
Bob Griese had some of his best statistical success early in his career, but there’s not enough there (1967-71) to put him too high. Sonny Jurgensen threw the ball a lot more than Griese, though he was primarily a backup for his first four years before exploding onto the scene in 1961 with the Eagles. Again, that’s only one big year.
Ken Stabler basically sat for three years before taking over in Oakland in 1973. He was good then great in 1974, but it’s not enough. As seen above, Eli Manning’s stats (even to this day) leave a lot to be desired. He had the one magical Super Bowl run in 2007 to his name, but it’s hard to say Manning of 2004-08 was better than Flacco and Ryan.
Warren Moon was chucking it often on bad Houston teams at the start of his career. He was 26-42 as a starter with 78 touchdowns and 85 interceptions in his first five years before consistently making the playoffs.
For Ken Anderson (1971-75), he may have been 0-2 in the playoffs and 34-23 in the regular season, but he played so well in a decade where passing stats were pathetic; he won two passing titles (for yards and passer rating); and he did have a winning record as a starter in four straight years. Let’s keep him.
Aaron Rodgers sat for three years and only has 2008-09. That’s not enough. Bobby Layne had two forgettable years, then three seasons with a lot of volume and a championship in Detroit (1952). Already took Roethlisberger.
Sid Luckman (1939-43) is a tough one. He had really good numbers and was on the winningest team, but he only threw 582 passes and was aided by World War II, which is a phrase you would rarely ever use. It was just a different, less quarterback-dependent era.
Len Dawson was drafted No. 5 overall by Pittsburgh in 1957, but he was an NFL bust with 45 pass attempts in five years before finding success in the AFL with the Chiefs.
Norm Van Brocklin (1949-53) played really well, but he also was a part-time quarterback (with Waterfield) on the most loaded offense in football. He also took advantage of some poor teams, like when he threw for the record 554 yards against the 1951 New York Yanks. He showed his true greatness later on in his career, winning the last championship for the Eagles in 1960.
Success for Y.A. Tittle largely came in his old-man days with the Giants in the '60s. Jim Kelly is in the mix. Drew Brees is not for sitting year one, playing mediocre in year two and terrible in year three. Kurt Warner was elite. Dan Fouts didn’t break out until year six. We already mentioned adding Aikman and removing Bradshaw for his vomit-inducing start.
Bart Starr made his first playoff start in year five, which would be his only loss, but he did very little at the start without Vince Lombardi as his coach. Fran Tarkenton was prolific right away, but he had a hard time building up a winner on an expansion team in Minnesota. The Vikings were much better stocked when he returned in 1972.
Otto Graham is up there, while Sammy Baugh is in the same boat as Luckman, though Baugh was a more dominant player. Roger Staubach was incredible in the '70s, but he only threw 646 passes in his first five seasons. That’s not enough, and the one Super Bowl win (1971) was frankly a run many quarterbacks could have pulled off. Dallas allowed 18 points in three playoff games.
John Elway had a poor rookie season but still managed a 46-21-1 record as starter with an MVP (1987) and two Super Bowl losses in his first five years. However, it’s hard to overlook the pedestrian numbers he had for really the first decade of his career.
Tampa Bay was a mess when Steve Young was there (1985-86), but he sat behind Joe Montana before getting his chance. That also leaves him with few relevant achievements through five years.
Brett Favre sat as a rookie, but after the trade to Green Bay in 1992, he started his iron-man streak. His first MVP came in 1995, but his five-year run really ends when his prime was just beginning.
Tom Brady, Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas clearly rank very highly here. That leaves just two names.
Joe Montana’s case is an interesting one. He sat as a rookie; he played well on a bad team in a smaller role in 1980; he was very good in 1981 to lead the 49ers to their first Super Bowl; he was again very good in 1982, but his team's poor defense led to a 3-6 record in the strike-shortened season. Montana was also rather prolific in 1983.
Then you have Peyton Manning, who Ryan has drawn many comparisons to in his career. Manning’s first five years include the only two (1998 and 2001) where he failed to win double-digit games when he played. He had the defense that allowed the most points in the league both times.
While Manning’s 1999 and 2000 seasons are better than any season Flacco and Ryan have had, those two double-digit loss seasons had a few too many mistakes and failures in the clutch. His 2002 season was solid, but it was a lot of forcing the ball to Marvin Harrison (record 143 catches) with a bad running game. Manning also was 0-3 in the playoffs through five years.
That’s why it may not be a stretch at all to say Flacco and Ryan have been better through five seasons than Manning. It’s very close, but as always, it depends on what you value.
The Best Quarterbacks After Five Years in NFL History
When you piece it all together, you end up with a list of the best five-year starts that looks something like the following.
Honorable Mention: Donovan McNabb, Boomer Esiason, Joe Namath, Bert Jones, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Norm Van Brocklin, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Brett Favre.
Johnny Unitas comes in at No. 1. You saw in the DAPR table how absurd his numbers were for his era. He played well as a rookie, replacing a No. 1 overall pick (George Shaw) in Baltimore. He led the league in a variety of statistics several times over the next four years.
Unitas won back-to-back championships while leading the top scoring offense and calling his own plays, including the first overtime win in NFL history against the Giants in 1958. He threw 32 touchdowns in just 12 games in 1959. He also led the league with 2,899 passing yards. No NFL passing yardage leader since has won a championship.
Johnny U, the modern-day pioneer of the position, was an easy choice for the top spot.
Likewise, Dan Marino and his ridiculous 168 touchdown passes made for an easy runner-up. Marino had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. He had the greatest sophomore season ever in 1984. He was quite good in 1985, leading the Dolphins to the AFC Championship again.
He was so prolific with 44 touchdowns in 1986 with a putrid defense. In the 12 games he played in 1987, that was also one of his best seasons. It’s a wonder how Marino never had better years later, but he started in historic fashion.
Kurt Warner sat as a rookie (1998) and played lousy in 2002, so he’s really here for three seasons (1999-01), but what a run it was. Even with his bad year in 2002, Warner still has the highest completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating through five seasons in NFL history. He’s the only player on the list with multiple MVP awards that early in a career. He won a Super Bowl MVP as well, with an impressive 35-14 record as a starter in the regular season.
It’s really a matter of splitting hairs with Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady.
As rookies, Brady sat and Roethlisberger had one of the best years ever. As sophomores, both won the Super Bowl, but Roethlisberger clearly had the better season. Both played worse as juniors and missed the playoffs, though Brady (2002) had a better year than Roethlisberger (2006).
In year four, Roethlisberger was statistically elite but lost a Wild Card game at home. Brady won a Super Bowl with so-so numbers and the No. 1 defense. In year five, Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl with so-so numbers and the No. 1 defense while Brady had his best year yet with a third title win.
We already talked a bit about the dominance of Montana and Anderson. In between, Cleveland’s Otto Graham is someone certain people may rank higher. It’s a bit of a cheap sell given he had so much pro experience with many of the same teammates (and coach Paul Brown) before joining the NFL from the AAFC, but he belongs here. However, a few ugly losses in championship games keeps him at No. 7. If this was about best six-year starts, Graham would get a boost from 1955.
I always struggle to rank Troy Aikman. He was arguably the worst quarterback in the NFL as a rookie in 1989. He wasn’t much better in 1990. He was mediocre at best in 1997-00 if not downright awful in 2000 before retiring. So his career basically hinges on the success in 1991-96 when Dallas became the only team to ever win a playoff game in six consecutive seasons.
Aikman was awesome in the playoffs at that time and also very efficient and accurate in the regular season. With back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1992-93, that’s really the reason he is No. 9, but again, it’s always a struggle to rank him due to his weird career arcs.
Then it wraps up with the constant debate of Flacco versus Ryan, with Manning rounding out the dirty dozen. You have to try to weigh consistency with peak/elite play and playoff success with regular-season wins.
There’s no magic formula and there never will be. There’s just a lot of stuff to consider, and when you put it all together, there’s no denying Ryan is more than worthy of a spot in the top 12.
A quarterback’s career doesn’t stop after five years unless something goes wrong, but hopefully this exercise shows that it takes many great quarterbacks more time to carve out their legacy.
Back in July 2003, some may have thought they had Warner and Manning pegged very well. “Let’s give Warner a pass for the injury. He’ll get the Rams back to elite status this season. Peyton? He just lost 41-0 to the Jets. No playoff wins in five seasons. Tony Dungy was the wrong hire. The Colts will never win a playoff game with those chokers at the helm."
Note: There is no proof this was quoted verbatim from the mouth of former NFL kicker Mike Vanderjagt.
Warner fell deeper into what became a five-year abyss while Manning ascended to an all-time level in 2003, winning MVP and leading the Colts to the AFC Championship. The future is never guaranteed.
Matt Ryan: Nexus Six
There’s no denying Ryan has put himself in great company with an excellent start. He’s on a faster track to the Hall of Fame through five years than many of the notable names enshrined there.
The 2013 season may be his last chance with tight end Tony Gonzalez as they try to win a Super Bowl together, but barring injury, there’s no reason Ryan doesn’t have a solid decade ahead of him with (perhaps) the best to come.
Season six may have sucked for HBO’s Entourage, but it’s been a transcendent year for several of the NFL’s notable quarterbacks:
- Tom Brady (2005), Drew Brees (2006) and Ben Roethlisberger (2009) passed for 4,000 yards for the first time in their careers in their sixth season.
- Jim Kelly’s only First-Team All-Pro selection came in year six (1991).
- Joe Montana (1984) had his most efficient season yet, leading San Francisco to another Super Bowl win.
- All three Green Bay legends won their first championships in season six: Bart Starr (1961), Brett Favre (1996) and Aaron Rodgers (2010).
- Len Dawson (1962) led the AFL in various statistics and led the Dallas Texans to a championship in his first year with the team (sixth as a pro).
- Randall Cunningham (1990), Donovan McNabb (2004) and Daunte Culpepper (2004) were at their best as dual-threat quarterbacks in year six.
- Peyton Manning (2003), the quarterback Ryan is most often compared to, won his first NFL MVP in year six.
Finally, just for Atlanta fans, recall Steve Bartkowski’s 1980 season when he threw 31 touchdowns and led the Falcons to a 12-4 record. That was his sixth season.
Ryan was very good last year, but he can always get better and has the team around him to do so. There’s no guarantee we’ll see him improve in his career, but the potential is there.
Ultimately, Ryan’s career will be judged on what he does now with the big contract rather than his impressive start with the 56 wins and memorable game-winning drives.
Lest we forget the first pass of Ryan’s career going 62 yards for a touchdown to Michael Jenkins, who later that season made an unbelievable 26-yard catch in the final seconds to help beat Chicago. It was the first of Ryan’s one-minute drills.
It’s about the 80-yard drive in 45 seconds to beat the Ravens’ vaunted defense in prime time in 2010. It’s starting at the 1-yard line and throwing a bomb to Roddy White against Carolina last year. It’s the career-high 142.6 passer rating in dispatching the defending champion Giants, 34-0. It’s the two decisive, perfect throws against Seattle’s No. 1 defense in the playoffs to set up the game-winning field goal.
To quote Blade Runner, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."
We don’t know what Ryan’s future holds, but he’s now compensated with the hopes of great things. If it doesn’t work out, it would be nice if we can still remember for a moment in time, through five NFL seasons, Ryan was an elite quarterback.
Scott Kacsmar has written for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.