As Matt Ryan hit Justin Hardy in the end zone with 32 seconds to go in the half the chants that began softly earlier became deafening and consistent the rest of the game. “MVP! MVP! MVP!” the packed house chanted at a deafening level as the Atlanta quarterback threw his fourth touchdown pass before halftime.
I’m sorry NFLers, there is not other logistical choice. You can now put all your posturing aside because Matt Ryan is indeed an elite quarterback. Not only has he had one of the most prolific seasons for a quarterback (38 TD passes, 7 interceptions, 4,944 passing yards and a QB rating of 117.1), he is the epitome of a franchise quarterback.
I’ve had the privilege of covering him since his career started. I knew who he was when he was drafted out of Boston College but wasn’t impressed. The Atlanta Falcons have tended to take great college quarterbacks and make them mediocre pros. And with the ushering in of the free agent era all hell has broken loose, as it has been every man for himself. It’s rare to find a QB to remain long with their drafted team unless something magical happens. Many may have forgotten Drew Brees was cast aside by San Diego for Phillip Rivers. Yes, Brees is a future Hall of Famer who was on the opposing sideline this particular Sunday.
The list of failed Falcons quarterbacks I’ve seen drafted and cringed later about could fill a small warehouse. You can start with their initial draft and Randy Johnson (not the pitcher who threw twice as many interceptions as he did touchdowns during his brief NFL career. The there was Pat Sullivan who won the Heisman Trophy from Auburn, Chris Miller, Jeff Van Raaphorst (?), Mike Moroski (?), even Michael Vick if you look at something besides his mobility to a myriad of free agents who at some point has been under center in Atlanta. Matt Ryan is the 37th quarterback for the team since its inception 51 years ago, 17 since the move to the Georgia Dome in 1992.
Ryan is the second longest tenured quarterback in Falcons history at nine years and counting trailing only Steve Bartkowski. Last year he eclipsed all of Bartkowski’s team records and now holds and NFL record (most consecutive 200-yard passing games). Ryan’s success has been second to none in team history however he has never gotten the respect he deserves.
Sure, Bartkowski was he first NFL quarterback to post consecutive 30 touchdown pass seasons, Chris Chandler took them to their only Super Bowl appearance and Michael Vick is the only NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, but Ryan has been the only consistent winner in franchise history.
Before Matt Ryan stepped foot in the Georgia Dome the Atlanta Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons. With Ryan under center they had five consecutive. That’s right, their first 43 seasons in the league they did not have two winning seasons in a row. The team had its first winning season in 1971 (7-6-1) followed by a 7-7 campaign. There are those that still romanticize the Michael Vick era but they forget he never had back-to-back winning seasons. In six years in Atlanta he had only two winning seasons. After a coupe of down seasons for the team the Falcons have had six winning seasons out of nine and seven non-losing seasons (.500 or better).
Despite this he gets no respect. Why hasn’t he won the Super Bowl yet I’ve heard? Or he can’t win the big game. I’ve got news for Atlanta fans and NFL fans in general. The Falcons have never won anything. The only professional sports franchise to win it all in the Georgia state capital is the Atlanta Braves who only won once and should have won multiple titles. The Flames and the Thrashers never really challenged much in the NHL and moved away. There was even a short-lived soccer team in 1980-81 during when soccer got popular stateside thanks in part to international soccer star Pele coming to the states. Still all these professional teams and only one single, solitary title. And football fans seem to take it out on Ryan.
Sunday’s game at the Georgia Dome, the last ever regular season home game there, Ryan’s play was indicative of his entire season. Ryan threw for four touchdowns and 331 yards as the team posted 38 points on the board. This year’s offense has been prolific as a whole as well.
The Falcons finished the season scoring 540 total points. No team has put that many points on the board since the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf”. After butting heads all last season with Kyle Shanihan (although neither will admit it), Shanihan let Ryan run the offense at his pace – more akin to a no-huddle. Ryan set another NFL record this season for completing touchdown passes to 13 different receivers. Last season at times it seemed it was Julio Jones or bust and if you looked into Ryan’s eyes last season as I did you could see frustration as many throws seemed forced and he threw only five more touchdowns than interceptions in 2015. His play this season has been at a high level since a week one loss to Tampa Bay and even in losses he was not a liability. Of Atlanta’s five losses this season all were single-digit losses and with a little luck should have been 15-1.
And while Ryan just fell short of 5,000 passing yards, he had as one-two punch in the backfield that not only carried their weight but also excelled and are growing up. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Campbell are volatile combo who can not only run and catch passes out of the backfield but are also young. Freeman, the elder of the two is only in his third season. The Atlanta backfield is set for a while.
Add to that a defense that has been horrendous since 2013 only to see it gradually improve and pick up speed as the season kept going. Vic Beasley Jr. led the league in sacks with 15½ and once you consider that the entire 2015 team only had 19 collectively it is enough to stand up and take notice. A secondary that has increasingly gotten stingy and has only given up yards during junk time when the game was already decided like Sunday. Sure Drew Brees was able to add to his Hall of Fame resume but this game was over midway through the third quarter especially when Beasley sent him to the turf.
Holy cow! I can say this and people may start believing me and not just humoring me. The Falcons did what they had to and are for real. They did not back into the playoffs. They won their way in and finished the job by securing the number two seed behind the Dallas Cowboys. And with a week off to rest before they know whom they will host there is still a chance that the road to Houston (home of this year’s Super Bowl) will have to go through the Georgia Dome. And that would be a fitting send off for the structure that the Falcons have called home since 1992.
– Dave Weinthal
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