Leads blown, hearts broken, ice melted.
Since the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl run (and collapse), the team has been near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every respect—a cursed franchise back to the bottom of the NFL food chain. An aging Matt Ryan hasn’t been able to save them over the past few years, unable to lift a dreadful supporting cast while also facing some serious regression in the process.
After a Week 1 throttling by a poor Philadelphia Eagles team, it looked like more of the same was in store for the organization—as well as Ryan—in 2021. The vultures were out. The ‘Ryan is cooked’ hive was blowing up. Everyone was lamenting about how passing on Justin Fields or Mac Jones would come back to haunt the franchise for the next decade. Despite a new head coach Arthur Smith trying to invigorate some life into the franchise, they looked as stale as month-old bread.
Yet here we are, eight weeks later. The Falcons are in a playoff spot. Smith is cooking up a top-tier passing attack without his best wide receiver even available. All is good in Georgia.
There are plenty of reasons why the team is starting to find itself. You can point to Cordarrelle Patterson’s mind-bending emergence, A.J. Terrell turning into a borderline star right before our eyes, or Kyle Pitts doing Kyle Pitts-type things. Yet it's Ryan—the cornerstone franchise player for the past decade and a half—that's the most valuable one leading the charge, and by a wide margin at that.
Turning back the clock and playing his best ball since his MVP year, Ryan has looked incredible during multiple matchups this season, including Sunday’s huge win over New Orleans. Passing for more than 340 yards on just 30 attempts in the game, Ryan did it all: throwing to no-name receivers, making big-time throws in pressure-filled situations, and eventually leading a game-winning drive with under a minute left in regulation.
The performance caused a stir amongst national media, but the truth is, Ryan has been playing at this type of level since Week 3.
Taking out those first couple weeks where Ryan was dealing with a new play-caller and a disastrous game script where he was playing from behind before he could even blink, he’s been near the top of the league in every passing category, ranking fifth in QB rating, tied for eighth in pass touchdowns, ninth in pass yards, third in EPA (expected points added), sixth in CPOE (completion percentage above expected), and tied for first in EPA+CPOE combined.
Although many might not be familiar with those last two advanced stats, EPA and CPOE are often great indicators of high-level quarterback play. Case in point, the two players with an equal mark to Ryan in that regard are just two MVP candidates by the names of Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray—that's not too shabby.
Essentially Ryan has been a top-10 quarterback in virtually every metric since Week 3, leading his team to a 4-2 record during that span. No, he hasn’t been pushing the ball a ton down the field during that period, but he’s much farther removed from the ‘cooked’ narrative than even the most pro-Ryan media members would have ever expected.
Ranking around the middle of the league in middle of the field throws—a general indicator of arm velocity—as well as just around league average in air yards since Week 3, Ryan’s arm has held in extremely well for his supposedly brittle 36-year-old body. No, nobody’s mistaking him for Justin Herbert at this point, but he hasn’t limited his offense like a Ben Roethlisberger or even Kirk Cousins, which is huge as far as play-calling and getting Pitts involved goes. Put it this way, if you’re able to uncork deep balls with 50 seconds left in regulation to lead a team into field goal range, your arm is just fine.
Make no mistake, Ryan still likes his check-downs and quick-rhythm passing, but that’s actually a very good thing, especially in an offense that features the third-worst rushing attack in the league (in EPA) and a sub-par offensive line (that has been fortunate to only allow 12 sacks—and the eighth-lowest sack rate in the league—given Ryan’s quick trigger). The fact of the matter is he’s getting absolutely zero help from his ground game (this past week, Atlanta rushed for just 34 yards on 25 carries), he’s without his top receiver in Calvin Ridley, he’s still in the process of learning a new offense, and his defense is still borderline bad. But—*cue Jeff Goldblum voice*—Ryan has found a way. He’s shouldering a load—a load the majority of us thought he was far too washed to carry—and leading Atlanta right into the thick of the playoff race with his top-10 level play.
It may not last and in a decade we might still look back and think Fields should have been their first-round pick this past draft, but it’s a great story for one of the best quarterbacks of a generation.
Matty Ice is back, baby.