With a $103.75 million contract, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan gets paid like an elite quarterback. Listen to sports talk radio, watch the sports shows on TV or join a conversation anywhere people talk sports, however, and few believe he is elite—a sentiment echoed by tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“Matt’s an excellent quarterback,” Gonzalez said, as reported by Seth Wickersham in ESPN The Magazine. “But he’s not elite. He’s this close. He’ll get there, but he has some learning to do.”
If a player’s bank statement was the best indicator of rank, Ryan would easily be included among the elite. His five-year deal is the seventh richest contract in the NFL and the fifth among quarterbacks, according to Spotrac. But elite as a measure of wealth is a country club ideal—that mentality doesn’t work in the NFL.
|Jay Cutler||Chicago Bears||QB||$126.7 million|
|Joe Flacco||Baltimore Ravens||QB||$120.6 million|
|Calvin Johnson||Detroit Lions||WR||$113.45 million|
|Larry Fitzgerald||Arizona Cardinals||WR||$113 million|
|Aaron Rodgers||Green Bay Packers||QB||$110 million|
|Tony Romo||Dallas Cowboys||QB||$108 million|
|Matt Ryan||Atlanta Falcons||QB||$103.75 million|
In football a quarterback gets labeled elite because of touchdown passes, wins (typically playoff wins, but huge clumps of regular-season wins can get a player to the elite level), a sort of moxie on the field that few possess, and drive after successful drive, leading a team in every facet of the game.
Drew Brees is elite. So are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. But that’s where the list ends for quarterbacks currently playing the game. The problem is there’s no clearly defined rubric that lays out a course for how a quarterback becomes elite.
You just know.
Former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler agreed with Gonzalez, but said there is more to come from Ryan in the future.
Tony G thinks Matt Ryan isn't "elite"? I don't either. Matt Ryan will still retire with the same amount of rings as Peyton Manning. Agree?— Alge Crumpler (@Alge_Crumpler) February 7, 2014
How close is Ryan to becoming elite? Gonzalez held his thumb near his index finger in the ESPN The Magazine article to indicate that the six-year vet is extremely close. But that tiny gap between the future Hall of Famer's digits may be harder than expected for Ryan to bridge.
In today’s football society, it’s almost unfathomable that a quarterback could be considered elite without playoff success or, heck, even a Super Bowl ring. But that seems to be the barrier of entry into this club. To hell with Dan Marino—he doesn’t get a membership card because he never won the big game.
That’s ludicrous; of course Marino was an elite quarterback. But Super Bowl wins speak volumes, and Ryan is severely lacking in this conversation. But he shouldn’t be.
When it comes to our current club of elite quarterbacks, Manning, Rodgers and Brees all have a Super Bowl ring. Brady has three. Collectively the group has thrown 1,401 career touchdown passes and amassed 189,391 passing yards, just more than 107.6 miles worth.
If you were to take away any of these guys' rings, would they be forced to give up their elite status? No. When it comes to this conversation with this group, the ring is just the icing on the cake.
But then why does Ryan need a ring?
The answer is that he doesn’t (at least that's not all he needs), and you only have to look at some of Ryan’s counterparts in the almost-elite club to understand.
If you’ll allow me an opinion for a moment, Ryan sits on the outside looking in at Brees, Manning, Rodgers and Brady, and he’s not alone in this adjacent room. Ben Roethlisberger is there, almost elite just like Ryan. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco are there too.
But Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Flacco are different than Ryan because they all have Super Bowl rings (multiple rings in the case of Big Ben and Eli). They have championship rings and they’re not elite.
There’s obviously something missing from their resumes. Maybe it’s tangible and quantifiable. But maybe Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Flacco—who have five Super Bowl rings combined, compared to six between Brady, Brees, Peyton Manning and Rodgers—just don’t have that elusive “it” factor, that indefinable measure that transforms a great quarterback into a member of the elite class.
|Player||Super Bowl Rings||Seasons Won|
|Tom Brady||3||2001, 2003 & 2004|
|Ben Roethlisberger||2||2005 & 2008|
|Eli Manning||2||2007 & 2011|
The fact that there’s no checklist for becoming an elite quarterback makes this discussion extremely difficult, but what does Ryan need to do to become elite?
On one hand, a ringing endorsement from quite possibly the best tight end to ever play the game is powerful. While some believe Gonzalez’s statement to be a slight on Ryan, I believe the opposite is true. Gonzalez wasn’t criticizing his quarterback of five years, he was merely stating that Ryan was close, just a step away. Let’s all look at this as Gonzalez stepping up for Ryan, not stomping on him.
On the opposite hand from Gonzalez’s endorsement—and a weapon that is constantly used against Ryan—is the fact that Ryan has somewhat bumbled through postseason play, with a 1-4 playoff record. But even this argument is growing somewhat weak.
Sure, Ryan’s Falcons experienced three one-and-done postseasons from 2008 to 2011, and Ryan threw for less than 200 yards in each. Don’t forget that Ryan was a young quarterback (those were three of his first four seasons in the league) and his team lost all three times to the eventual NFC representative in the Super Bowl. Two of those teams ended up winning the title.
One-and-done sounds terrible, but let’s gain a little perspective. Ryan showed growth in his trip to the playoffs in 2012. His Falcons got a playoff win and came close to a trip to the Super Bowl. On a personal level, Ryan’s playoff numbers improved.
|W/L||Comp. %||Yards/Game||TD/INT||Passer Rating|
Pro Football Reference
Now, except for win totals and a touchdown-to-interception ratio that is still out of whack, Ryan’s regular-season numbers look very similar to his postseason stats. Ryan has a better completion percentage in the postseason, almost the same yards-per-game total and a passer rating that’s just off his typical mark.
He still must throw fewer interceptions in the playoffs and more touchdown passes. But for the most part, on a personal level, playoff Ryan is just about the same as regular-season Ryan.
That said, if Ryan’s playoff resume is improving on a personal level, wins and success should come once the Falcons regroup and put the dismal 2013 season in the past. What does Ryan need to do during the regular season to help his elite status cause?
To look at this, let's compare Ryan to Rodgers. They’ve been starting in the NFL for the same number of years, as both took over under center in 2008 (although Rodgers spent three seasons as Brett Favre’s backup, so Rodgers does have a good bit more experience).
|W-L||Attempts||Comp. %||Yards||TD/INT||Passer Rating|
Pro Football Reference
The first thing that stands out is the similar-looking statistics. Rodgers has just 725 more yards than Ryan (396 if you take away the yardage from Rodgers from 2005 to 2007), and Green Bay’s record with Rodgers at the helm is 58-29. Atlanta’s with Ryan is 60-34.
How many wins would the 2013 Atlanta Falcons have had with a healthy Aaron Rodgers at quarterback?
Ryan is a bit further off from Rodgers in a few other categories. Rodgers has 35 more touchdowns and 25 fewer interceptions. Rodgers averages 8.2 yards per attempt while Ryan sits at 7.1. And Ryan has never finished a season with a passer rating above 100, while Rodgers has only once since 2008 finished below 100.
Rodgers is more precise; he makes more plays and has fewer mistakes on his resume. And he’s flourished, for the most part, without a running game, a top offensive line or a powerful defense. Ryan didn’t fare well in 2013 when all those options were taken away from him.
Ryan is going to have to work on prospering when situations are not ideal, and he still has to improve in every aspect of his game (something he’s done year in and year out since he entered the league, with the exception of 2013). Almost everything went wrong for Atlanta in 2013 and the Falcons went 4-12.
How many wins could Rodgers have pulled out for Atlanta if he was under center for the Falcons last season?
If you can find a way to answer that question, you can find out how far Ryan has to go before he can join Rodgers as an elite quarterback.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.