Is Matt Ryan Ready for Return Toward NFL Elite?

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Is Matt Ryan Ready for Return Toward NFL Elite?
David Goldman/Associated Press

Never more than six in any season, and not fewer than three, Matt Ryan was under center for a total of 22 losses over his first five years in the NFL as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. But in 2013, Ryan experienced a phenomenon he hadn’t encountered in any of his previous seasons as a pro: a losing season.

The Falcons went 4-12 last season, and Ryan’s career win-loss record went from 56-22 (an average of 4.4 losses per season) to 60-34. While his career .638 winning percentage is still more than solid, 35.3 percent of Ryan’s losses have now come from one dismal season.

Ryan wasn’t dismal; the team’s record was. But the Atlanta quarterback did suffer through some statistical low points as the Falcons lost 12 games:

  • Ryan threw a career-high 17 interceptions.
  • Possibly a result of losing deep-threat Julio Jones for 11 games, Ryan only averaged 10.3 yards per throw, the lowest mark of his career.
  • Ryan was sacked 44 times. His previous high mark was set the year before with 28.

Even with his team’s 12 losses and some of the statistical troubles Ryan underwent, the entire 2013 wasn’t a wash. Ryan does have some things to brag about when looking back to a year ago.

Ryan still threw for 4,515 yards in 2013, the second-highest total of his career. Only three NFL quarterbacks tossed out more passing yards last season. Ryan also ranked fourth in the league in completion percentage, connecting on 67.4 percent of his passes.

One of the sticking points of Ryan’s six NFL seasons is the fact that he always challenges everyone around him to be better. He lives the cliche “first one in to work, last one to leave,” both in the weight room and the film room, and has found ways to improve upon his game each year he’s been in the league.

"Every year, it's finding ways to get better individually during the offseason and trying to improve," Ryan said after the Falcons finished an OTA session Tuesday. "So that if you're a better player, I feel like that makes our team better. So, I've tried to be as detailed as I possibly can be, both in the weight room and in the film room, and out on the practice field. I think it's overall consistency."

Falcons head coach Mike Smith called Ryan “one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in all the league” and said he was more than just a player out there when he’s running the offense.

"I think he's like a coach on the field," Smith said. "He has a very good understanding of our offense. He has very good understanding of no-huddle. That, to me, is very important, because you've got to get to the line of scrimmage, see what the defense is showing you and have the cat-and-mouse game with the defense in terms of what they're presenting."

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So, Ryan works as hard as anyone on the team and is as intelligent as they come. What’s it going to take to get Ryan back into the conversation he was a part of in 2012, though, when he was standing right outside the door of the club for NFL elite quarterbacks?

Ryan never opened that door, and he surely didn’t walk through it. But after posting 4,719 passing yards and a 68.6 percent completion rate in 2012after leading his team on five fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories en route to a 13-3 season and an NFC Championship Game appearanceRyan was close.

After suffering through a 4-12 season last year, oftentimes looking up at the Georgia Dome ceiling from his back, Ryan’s best shot at making his way back toward the elite class lies more in what the Falcons did during the offseason to assemble talent around him rather than what skill set he brings to work with him each day.

Did the Falcons add enough along the offensive line to give Ryan more time to throw the football? Can Atlanta improve upon its pedestrian rushing attack? Will the return of two of his favorite receiving targets—Jones and Roddy Whiteto full health be enough to get Ryan and the Falcons back to winning more games than not?

In 2013, Garrett Reynolds, Peter Konz, Ryan Schraeder and Jeremy Trueblood gave up 14 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 77 hurries on the right side of Atlanta’s offensive line, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The Atlanta offensive line as a whole gave up a league-worst 190 hurries.

The Falcons picked Jake Matthews in the first round of the 2014 draft and added Jon Asamoah via free agency. Those two will instantly plug into the right side of Atlanta’s line, and if all goes well, they will plug the hole that led to many nightmares for Ryan.

Ryan isn’t fearful at all that a rookie offensive tackle is going to play a large role in his success this season.

“Certainly, he has a ways to go in terms of learning the playbook, but everybody does when you're at that stage,” Ryan said about Matthews. “When you watch him, when he knows what he's doing, he's incredibly athletic, he's got great feet. He's stout. He's strong. He's quiet, which you've got to love from a young guy.

"He just goes to work, does what he's supposed to do. I think there's a real maturity to him, so I'm excited about it. I think he fits in well with our guys, and I think he's going to be productive for us for a long time."

Because Matthews will play right tackle and Sam Baker will come back from injury to play on the left side, Lamar Holmes, a guy who gave up 10 sacks, 13 hits and 53 hurries last season, will be relegated to backup duty.

The Falcons had trouble running the football last season, finishing dead last in the NFL with just 77.9 yards per game on the ground. Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for just 1,039 rushing yards and a 3.5 yards-per-carry average.

Devonta Freeman was added in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, and he could make a huge push to steal playing time from Rodgersand even Jackson if the problems he faced last season turn out to be based more on his age and less on an ineffective offensive line.

During rookie minicamp, Freeman showed acceleration and an extra gear that wasn’t apparent in any running back the Falcons had on their roster last season.

As far as receivers go, even though White played 13 games last season, it was easy to see that he wasn’t 100 percent for many of those contests. Furthermore, Jones missed 11 games after a foot injury forced him to the injured reserve. Ryan missed having those two weapons out there together.

“For us to have our two biggest playmakers out on the field at the same time, it makes us a different football team," said Ryan. "Those guys are getting healthy now, getting back. We had Roddy out on the field (Tuesday), he looked great. It’s nice to have those guys back healthy, and if we can keep them on the field, it’s going to bode well for us."

The Falcons are taking it slow with Jones, who has been out on the field with the Falcons during OTAs but hasn't been a full participant. Also, don’t think for a moment that Jones and Ryan aren’t trying to get in sync as well prior to the former’s return to the field.

"Julio's been in this building pretty much every day this offseason," said Ryan. "While he hasn't been able to be out on the practice field with us yet, we communicate a lot. We've talked a lot, certainly have watched film together and tried to work on things in the classroom so that when we do get the opportunity on the field, we can hit the ground running.

"I certainly think when he gets back, whenever that is and as we get closer to training camp, we're going to have plenty of time to gel up and make sure that we're on the same page."

Ryan might not ever make it into that elite club for NFL quarterbacks, but he can surely take a huge step back toward having his membership considered in 2014, very similarly to his Pro Bowl season of 2012.

The seventh-year passer is going to, once again, have to improve, like he’s done every year he’s been in the league. But for the most part, Ryan needs help from his friends.

If White and Jones can stay healthy, and if Harry Douglas proves that his 2013 breakout campaign was real, Ryan will have an arsenal to maneuver the ball down the field. Also, if the new pieces along Atlanta’s offensive line protect him much better than they did last year, Ryan will have the time needed to throw.

And almost as important, the Atlanta running game needs to move out of the league’s cellar. For the Falcons to be effective on offense, they have to move away from being so one dimensional.

If all that happens, Ryan could have a career year in 2014.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand at OTAs in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on June 10, 2014.

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.

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