Matt Ryan May Never Escape His Choker Legacy
This year was special for Matt Ryan. The veteran Atlanta Falcons quarterback cut down on the mistakes that plagued him earlier in his career, and he came into his own on deep and under-pressure passes. As a result, he led the league in touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and QBR, earning a Pro Bowl berth, first-team All-Pro honors and his first MVP award.
But it might surprise some of you to learn that Ryan was a great NFL quarterback well before putting together a career year in 2016. The 31-year-old was a Pro Bowler in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and he's passed for over 4,000 yards in six consecutive seasons.
The problem is, Ryan developed a reputation for failing to deliver in clutch situations. And when you look at what happened in Super Bowl LI and in big moments throughout the 2016 season, you realize he's done little to change that perception.
The Reputation Has Deep Roots
Ryan developed a reputation for choking by losing four of his first five playoff games and posting an 85.2 passer rating in those affairs.
He became known as a quarterback who failed to rise to occasions by posting an 82.9 fourth-quarter passer rating during the first seven years of his career, compared to 94.3 in the first three quarters.
Between 2013 and 2015, 32 of Ryan's 47 interceptions (68 percent) came in the second half of games, and in the last four years, he has thrown an NFL-high 11 interceptions in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
Seven of those picks came in the final two minutes of one-score games that the Falcons would lose.
Atlanta has now blown an NFL-high four three-score leads in the last five years, with two of those chokes coming in playoff games.
And it was nearly five. The Falcons squandered a 17-0 lead against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship Game, losing 28-24 in a contest in which the offense generated zero points on five second-half possessions, with Ryan committing two turnovers during that stretch.
But they were only alive that day after rebounding from a major collapse against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. In that game, they let a 20-0 lead slip away, with their last four drives ending with an interception, a punt, another punt and a fourth-quarter field goal. If not for that field goal, they would have lost.
In the fourth quarter of those two tight 2012 playoff games, Ryan posted a 62.1 passer rating.
2016 Hasn't Been Much Different
It might also surprise some of you to learn that Ryan's crunch-time struggles didn't go away this season. He completed only 54.4 percent of his passes while throwing two picks in the fourth quarter of one-score games in 2016. But because the Falcons had the seventh-highest-scoring offense in NFL history, he rarely found himself in those situations.
The Falcons won a conference-high nine games by 13 or more points, which is why Ryan was forced to throw only 534 regular-season passes—his lowest total since 2009. During the regular season, he threw fewer passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games than 19 other quarterbacks.
And he didn't have to face a lot of fourth-quarter pressure in either of Atlanta's first two playoff games, because the Falcons led handily against both the Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers.
Here's a summary of Ryan's trials and tribulations in tight situations this season:
- Trying to come back from a seven-point deficit against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Ryan threw four consecutive incomplete passes in the final two minutes.
- In the fourth quarter of a close game against the Seahawks in Week 6, he took an unacceptable sack on third down, threw an interception to Earl Thomas on the following possession and again threw four consecutive incomplete passes in the final two minutes.
- The following week, with Atlanta leading the San Diego Chargers by three points in the final four minutes, he threw a baffling first-down interception to Denzel Perryman.
- He did lead a beautiful game-winning touchdown drive late against the Packers in Week 8, but even that came after he took sacks on back-to-back snaps with the lead earlier in the fourth quarter, cuing up a Green Bay touchdown drive that temporarily put the Falcons in a hole.
- The Falcons led the Philadelphia Eagles 15-13 with 11 minutes remaining in their Week 10 matchup, but Ryan completed just six of his final 15 passes as Atlanta finished the game with two punts, a turnover on downs and an interception. Philadelphia won 24-15.
- With Atlanta leading the Kansas City Chiefs by a single point late in the fourth quarter in Week 13, Ryan threw an interception to Eric Berry on a two-point conversion attempt. Berry returned it for a Kansas City two-pointer, which was the difference between a win and a loss.
The Falcons blew a 17-point lead in Week 7 against San Diego. And on Sunday in Houston, they became the only NFL team this season to blow two three-score leads.
After the Falcons took a 28-3 lead in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, their Ryan-led offense finished the game with three punts and a fumble, despite the fact they were in field-goal range on two of those drives.
Ryan took bad sacks that moved Atlanta out of field-goal range on both, and he coughed up the ball on a strip-sack as well. He completed five of his eight passes during that stretch for 92 yards, but his two fourth-quarter incomplete passes were ugly. Both came on third down, though that hardly matters when you take three second-half sacks and turn the ball over anyway.
The reality is Ryan wilted quite frequently in big spots this year, and the MVP disappeared in the biggest of spots this weekend.
Don't be fooled by the broad numbers. He was better than ever overall, but he did nothing to shed that choker label.
Is It Inescapable?
Ryan will be 32 before he takes another regular-season snap.
If he plays a full 10th season in 2017, he'll have started as many career games as Terry Bradshaw (158 apiece), and more than Hall of Famers Bart Starr (157), Y.A. Tittle (152), Bob Griese (151), Sonny Jurgensen (147), Ken Stabler (146), Bobby Layne (145) and Steve Young (143).
He's already started more games than Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Namath (129), Kurt Warner (116), Otto Graham (114) and Roger Staubach (114).
Pretty soon, it'll be too late to reverse the damage he's done to his legacy.
Nobody can take Ryan's accolades away from him. He can now say he's a first-team All-Pro, an Offensive Player of the Year, the league's MVP in 2016, and—at the very least—a four-time Pro Bowler. He holds the fifth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history (117.1 in 2016) and is the 11th-highest-rated qualified passer of all time (93.6).
But for the better part of a decade, he has flopped during the vast majority of his signature moments. And unfortunately for Ryan, those who judge him aren't wired to remember numbers. We're wired to remember big moments.
Big moments and Ryan haven't usually gotten along, and he's only got so many left. There's a chance he never reaches a Super Bowl again, which would make it impossible to achieve redemption. But if he does get another opportunity, he'll have to be practically perfect.
Otherwise, Matt Ryan will forever be remembered as a great quarterback who couldn't get it done when it mattered most.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.