Ryan signed a five-year extension at the end of July that netted him $103.75 million, in an offseason that saw a number of other signal-callers rake in huge contracts.
It’s without a doubt that the Falcons had little choice in paying Ryan. 2013 was set to be the final season on the rookie contract he signed back in 2008, and given Ryan’s success over his first five seasons in Atlanta, it was a no-brainer to lock him up long-term.
Ryan had compiled a 56-22 record during his five seasons as a Falcon starter. No signal-caller had compiled more regular-season wins in his first five seasons than Ryan, and it was without a doubt the best five-year span in Falcons history as the team earned playoff berths four times and had five consecutive winning seasons. That was notable for a franchise that in 42 seasons prior to Ryan’s arrival had never had back-to-back winning seasons, let alone five consecutive.
But the Falcons now stand at 4-11 with a game left to play in 2013, and the prudence of the huge financial decision stands in question.
Ryan isn’t alone in his disappointing season, as all four of the other quarterbacks who received monster extensions this offseason have been hounded by questions.
After a strong start to the year, Matt Stafford is facing heat as his Detroit Lions are amidst a 1-5 tailspin to close out the season that could see them choke away the playoff berth that seemed inevitable six weeks ago.
Tony Romo has come under consistent fire for his erratic play late in games and is now reportedly sidelined with a back injury for a pivotal Week 17 divisional showdown that will decide the postseason fate for his Dallas Cowboys.
Aaron Rodgers has also been bitten by the injury bug, as a broken collarbone has caused him to miss seven straight games and potentially an eighth in another pivotal season finale for the Green Bay Packers.
And Joe Flacco’s production has taken a huge nosedive, despite the fact that the Baltimore Ravens remain resilient and in a position to make the playoffs. Flacco has thrown 19 interceptions and posted a career-low passer rating of 75.2 with a game left to play.
But Ryan has had the worst season of all. The two interceptions he threw in Monday night’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers mark a new career high (or rather low) with 16 interceptions thrown. And unlike the teams of the other quarterbacks who are all scrapping for a place in the postseason, the Falcons have instead spent much of 2013 looking ahead to next May’s draft and their early draft position.
But as noted before, it’s not really a question of whether the Falcons should have paid Ryan in the first place. It’s more a question of how the Falcons move forward to make their decision to pay him the right call.
What has become clear this year is that Ryan has struggled to function without strong weapons to throw to. Early-season injuries to wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White really limited the Falcons offensive attack. It allowed teams to focus their attention on tight end Tony Gonzalez. And despite quality production, wide receiver Harry Douglas just hasn’t been the sort of playmaker who can help carry the offense as Jones and White did.
The other issue the Falcons have been plagued with is their porous offensive line play and lack of balance with a running attack. However, the Falcons have seen some progress in both regards thanks to a shuffling of the starting lineup over the past month and better production from running back Steven Jackson. But it hasn’t quite been enough.
Essentially, the revelation of 2013 is that while Matt Ryan is paid like an elite quarterback who is expected like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning to “carry” his team, he isn’t at that level.
He needs a lot more help, and it’s something the Falcons have not provided this year. It will be paramount for the Falcons as they move forward into 2014 to make a more concerted effort to protect their $103.75 million investment.
And that starts with solidifying their offensive line. The Falcons will continue to work through more permutations of their starting five in the season finale against the Carolina Panthers next week to try and discover which players are worth keeping and which are not.
Center Joe Hawley has played well since taking over for Peter Konz five weeks ago but is an unrestricted free agent come March. The Falcons need to decide whether he is a good candidate to bring back to be a starter.
They also need to make a decision on Lamar Holmes, who has shown some improvement at left tackle since the season-ending injury to Sam Baker. Baker is expected to return next year, and the team needs to decide whether Holmes is to stay on the left side or move back to right tackle, where he struggled early in the season.
And how will emerging young players like Ryan Schraeder and Harland Gunn figure into the mix next year as well as disappointments like Garrett Reynolds, Mike Johnson and Peter Konz?
These are still unanswered questions for the Falcons. And if anything can be considered a huge mistake, it was how the huge investment in Ryan may limit the Falcons' ability to invest in their offensive line.
According to OvertheCap.com, the Falcons are currently at roughly $10 million under the projected 2014 salary cap. They could potentially free up more by cutting some veterans on either side of the ball.
Restructuring Roddy White’s contract as reports indicate should also net savings, reducing a cap hit that tops $6 million in 2014. That leads to the next issue the Falcons face, which is improving the depth at the wide receiver position.
The loss of Julio Jones to injury really limited the Falcons offense, which is one of the least explosive units in the league. According to Pro Football Focus’ metrics (subscription required), Matt Ryan ranks dead last in the NFL in terms of percentage of pass attempts thrown beyond 20 yards. Without the playmaking presence of Jones, the Falcons offense has gotten increasingly conservative.
The multiple injuries that limited White through most of the season also did not help. White didn’t seem to begin to play like his former pre-injured self until Week 13 when he lit up the Buffalo Bills secondary for 143 yards. He’s finishing the season strong with another solid effort against the 49ers on Monday night. But as the team moves forward with White, they should consider moving him to the slot on a more permanent basis.
That has been a role played primarily by Douglas. But the team would be smart by adding another vertical threat to the outside to help open up their downfield passing attack more in 2014. While Douglas will likely continue to provide depth and an option for a Gonzalez-less Falcons offense, the team needs to work better to add more dynamic targets on the outside to help provide more big plays.
But the lack of big plays isn’t entirely due to the play of the wide receivers or the lack of protection provided by the offensive line. A lot has to do with Ryan’s own unwillingness to challenge downfield. That has never been a significant part of the Falcons passing attack under Ryan. When the team made the blockbuster draft-day move to get Jones in 2011, it seemed to mark the end of that period where the Falcons were a conservative, run-first offense.
All that has ultimately occurred is that the team has morphed into a conservative, pass-first unit. That needs to change, particularly if the team expects Ryan to live up to his massive contract. The play-calling and coaches must be more willing to emphasize the importance of the deep pass, otherwise they will continue to see Ryan make the “smart” and “safe” plays with checkdowns rather than the riskier deep shots.
But it's those deep shots that are ostensibly the "money-making" plays that will earn Ryan a place at the top of the NFL, coinciding with his salary.
Essentially, Ryan went into a shell in 2013 and the team must find ways to get him to emerge from it in the coming years. Otherwise, the Falcons will find themselves on the wrong end of this deal, with an adept but overpaid signal-caller. One where the positive value that Ryan brings on the field is outweighed by the negative value that his contract brings by limiting their ability to improve the rest of their roster to an acceptable rate.
And it essentially becomes a catch-22 where the Falcons are unable to get better play out of Ryan, which prompts the need to get a stronger supporting cast. But that supporting cast becomes more difficult to acquire because of the size of Ryan’s contract.
It’s still too early to determine if paying Ryan was a mistake, but unless the Falcons can get Ryan playing back at the near-elite level he was at in 2012, it won’t be long before we know that answer.