Atlanta Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan got plenty of love from ESPN's Ron Jaworski this offseason, but most of the hype regarding quarterbacks has centered on many of the second-year quarterbacks who emerged with surprisingly good rookie seasons in 2012.
But Matt Ryan is the original quarterback to emerge as a rookie, and he's really the starting point for the trend we've seen over the past few seasons of rookie quarterbacks having a surprising amount of initial success in the NFL. And given the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino-related circumstances that Ryan inherited when he first arrived in Atlanta, it is still as good a rookie season as any we have seen since.
But I'm not here to talk about how Matt Ryan's entire body of work deserves more praise. There is no doubt that the NFL is about "what you have done for me lately." If Ryan is to earn more praise, he cannot rest on his laurels.
And Ryan has done plenty lately.
Not only did he help carry his Atlanta Falcons to the NFC Championship Game several months ago, he has picked up in 2013 where he left off.
One of the problems that plagued the Falcons a year ago, and has yet to be cured thus far this season, is their lack of a run game. But that is no sweat off Matt Ryan's back. During a 31-24 win over the St. Louis in which the Falcons' ground attack generated only 36 yards, Ryan managed to throw for 374 yards while completing 33 of 43 passes for a pair of touchdowns.
That only adds to the 304 yards and two touchdowns he threw in the team's season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Ryan is still carrying the Falcons offense. And this offense has been without his go-to receiver for the past two weeks. Roddy White has been nursing an ankle injury that has limited his snaps and effectiveness.
But that's no problem, because Ryan and the Falcons have leaned heavily on Julio Jones in White's absence. Harry Douglas, who has never caught more than 39 passes in a season, is on pace for 64 catches through two games.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons' passing attack keep chugging along because he is capable of elevating the play of his receivers.
Tony Gonzalez spurned retirement to return to Atlanta for one more season largely due to Ryan's presence on the team. Gonzalez, who is searching for a Super Bowl ring in what will be his final season, was not going to neglect the prime opportunity that is in front of him—the opportunity to play with, as Jaworski indicates, one of the top five quarterbacks in the league.
Many don't think of Ryan as a top-five quarterback because unlike many of the other highly regarded quarterbacks, he has yet to win a Super Bowl.
But Ryan is well on his way to a title. His resume virtually speaks for itself.
He has more fourth-quarter comebacks in his first five seasons than any quarterback in NFL history. And while his win against the Rams won't count in that regard, he put that clutch ability on full display. With the Rams cutting the Falcons' lead to seven points with just under 12 minutes to go in the game, the Falcons needed a score to seal their victory.
They put the ball in Ryan's hands and he responded. He completed eight consecutive passes for 74 yards, hitting six different receivers, before handing the ball off to Jason Snelling to finish the drive.
A week ago against the Saints, if not for a pair of drops in the end zone by Steven Jackson and Tony Gonzalez, he would have added another fourth-quarter comeback. Ryan completed six of seven passes for 77 yards to put the Falcons on the Saints' doorstep before the drops by Jackson and Gonzalez.
Those drives show what the Falcons offense is capable of if Ryan is given time, protection and the onus to win. He's a distributor, football's equivalent to a championship-caliber point guard like Chris Paul or Jason Kidd. But he's playing in an NFL that is analogous to an NBA full of scoring point guards like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook.
That's why quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III have gotten a lot of hype this offseason. They run the ball and make the individual highlights. But they also play in offenses that are truly built around and for their running backs.
As was evidenced a year ago when the San Francisco 49ers won games under Alex Smith, or when the Washington Redskins won with Kirk Cousins in his lone start, those teams can still function without their starting quarterbacks as long as players like Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore and Alfred Morris are producing.
The Falcons, on the other hand, would be dead in the water without Ryan.
Ryan started out the same way; the Falcons leaned heavily on Michael Turner at the outset of his career. But over time, as he gained more experience and confidence, the Falcons were able to shift the burden of the team's offense to the young quarterback's shoulders. And he's been carrying it expertly ever since.