The Atlanta Falcons are 1-3 and they still have games down the road against the Seahawks, Saints, 49ers and Packers that were difficult matchups on paper before Atlanta's disappointing start to the 2013 campaign.
While Atlanta certainly has its issues along the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary, critics usually focus their attention under center at the quarterback position first in today's NFL. That means Atlanta's new $100 million man Matt Ryan is probably about to face more scrutiny than he ever has in his career.
Ryan is now 58-29 (counting playoffs) since taking over as the Falcons starting quarterback in 2008. He's thrown for 20,287 yards and 135 touchdowns and led 16 fourth-quarter comebacks during that time span. Based on numbers alone, Ryan is worth every penny of the contract extension he signed this offseason.
However, the Atlanta Falcons are going to need more from Matt Ryan if they're going to overcome their current predicament. While Ryan's stats are impressive, he's still far from quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in terms of his ability to pick apart an opponent's defense and take over a game.
What separates Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Brees from Ryan (besides Super Bowl rings)? In a word, it's called "moxie." In football terms, moxie can be defined as having the skill and strength of mind to consistently deliver in the face of adversity.
Indeed, Matt Ryan has shown flashes of moxie, but quarterbacks like Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Brees exude moxie on every snap they receive from under center.
Moxie is an intangible attribute, and you don't really need advanced analytics to measure it. The only place that moxie will show up on a stat sheet is in the column that says "final score." It's the difference between quarterbacks who make outcome-determining plays and quarterbacks who fall short of the mark.
Moxie is what allows Drew Brees to keep opposing defenses on their heels for an entire game and not just for a half. It's also what propelled Aaron Rodgers through the postseason during Green Bay's Super Bowl run following the 2010 season. Tom Brady displayed it last Sunday night when he lit up Atlanta's defense with a ragtag group of backup receivers and tight ends. Peyton Manning shows it every time he comes back on the field and leads a touchdown drive immediately after throwing an interception as if the pick never happened.
In contrast, a lack of moxie is what has led Matt Ryan to look like a deer in headlights when things haven't gone according to plan in some of Atlanta's biggest games against elite-level competition in recent years. That must change if Atlanta is going to salvage its 2013 season.
The Falcons are saying all of the right things about their quarterback following a loss to the Patriots that saw him miss a few key throws, but Atlanta's fate clearly rest with Ryan and his ability to play with the kind of moxie that represents the difference between hoping to score touchdowns in the red zone and knowing the ball is going to end up in the end zone because Matt Ryan is going to make it happen.
In 2002, the Falcons started 1-3 before a dynamic young quarterback named Michael Vick led them on a 7-0-1 stretch that helped the team beat the odds and make the playoffs. During that stretch, Vick's play prompted ESPN the Magazine writer David Fleming to coin the phrase "quarterback mojo" in a December 2002 article to describe the intangible attribute that Vick used to turn around Atlanta's season that year.
In the piece, Fleming described the "mojo" that quarterbacks like Vick, Tom Brady, Brett Favre and then Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon had at the time as being what every quarterback needs to win games in January.
Whether you call it mojo or moxie, it's precisely what the Atlanta Falcons need from Matt Ryan starting Monday night against the Jets. Without it, the Falcons are staring down the barrel of the most disappointing season of Ryan's career.
Matt Ryan has taken the Falcons as far as he can by filling up traditional stat sheets. If he wants to take his team to the next level, the intangible factors matter the most.
We'll find out if Ryan has them starting this week.
All stats are via ESPN.com Stats and Information and Pro-Football-Reference.com. All screenshots are from NFL.com's Game Rewind.