The Falcons do not have a proud history at the quarterback position.
The franchise's de facto great, Steve Bartkowski, is an amazing human being and a tough dude who gutted out a decade with the Falcons. While he's undeniably a legend in Atlanta and a man whose name will always be synonymous with the position in the Georgia Dome, his career TD/INT ratio was just 156/144 and he completed just 55.9 percent of his passes. He played through some tough times.
His closest competition has been Chris Chandler, who played five seasons in the red and black and took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 1998. He put up a 87/56 TD/INT ratio in his time in Atlanta
After that, things have mostly dropped off a cliff. You can pull out names like Michael Vick (a talented but ultimately flawed quarterback), Bob Berry, Chris Miller and Randy Johnson. The Falcons have had wonderful players at running back, wide receiver, on the offensive line and on defense, but at quarterback it's basically Bart and maybe Chandler. In 45 years.
Until Matt Ryan came along, that is.
Lost in the furor over this roller coaster of a season is the quietly exceptional season Ryan has put together. As The DW noted in his award-winning FanPost, Ryan has either broken or will break most of his career marks, and he's already broken a franchise record for most passes between a single quarterback and wide receiver (Roddy White, obviously). He's accomplished that in four seasons.
But before we get to the Shakespearean comparison and the career numbers, let's take a look at 2011. If Ryan throws just 15 passes, he'll break his career high for attempts. His 61.2 completion percentage is second only to his 2010 62.5 percent. If he chucks two touchdowns against the Buccaneers, he'll break that number, and he's just .3 away from posting a career high for passer rating at 90.
Those numbers are enough to place him among the top ten quarterbacks in the NFL, and he has a legitimate case for being included among the top five or six. That's before you consider the circumstances of this season, which makes his accomplishments even more impressive.
Ryan has played this entire season behind an offensive line that could be charitably described as inconsistent. He's been sacked a career-high 26 times and has faced constant pressure. He's played parts of the year without dynamic young talent Julio Jones, and the last five weeks he's had little to no ground game to support the aerial attack. Despite that, he's posted one of the best stretches of his young career over that span, and he continues to stand tall in the pocket and make throws. Imagine what this season would look like with a different coordinator, a better line and some lucky breaks, such as Roddy White and Julio Jones not dropping at least four touchdowns between them.
Matt Ryan may never be Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning, but so what? At any given time in the NFL, there are perhaps two-to-five truly elite quarterbacks alive and slinging. Being one of—if not the—best quarterback outside that group is extremely meaningful. You can win Super Bowls with guys like that. Teams have won them with much less. Looking at this season through the prism of the team's hardships, Ryan seems to be getting better, not worse.
It helps that he's the most even-keeled guy on the field, and this is where that inevitable Ice thing comes in. You'll never hear Ryan misspeak in a post-game interview or press conference. You'll never see him throw teammates under the bus, or blame anyone else for his mistakes. Increasingly, you'll never see him panic in the pocket, either. He's a guy you can count on to take a loss on his shoulders, to try from minute one to minute sixty, and to hang in there even in the face of crushing pressure that would send Blaine Gabbert scrambling fifteen yards backward. He is, for lack of a better word, poised.
And that's where we return to his Falcons career. As I write this, Ice is second in yardage for the franchise, second in touchdowns, just eighth in interceptions, and first in quarterback rating. If he stays with the team another four to five seasons, he will easily shatter every mark. He will be, in short, the best passer the Falcons have ever had. You could make the case that he already is.
Could Matt Ryan be better? Yes. He sometimes hangs on to the ball too long. He sometimes makes the wrong read. He sometimes sails throws. And for those who insist upon having a signal caller who reaches the lofty Brady/Brees level....well, he's not there. But there's no reason to believe he won't continue to get better, however incrementally, as he heads into his age 27 season in 2012. There's no reason to believe he's going to suddenly drop off a cliff, and I can honestly say I'm glad that this Falcons team is in his hands with the playoffs looming.
I just thought, given the sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating way this season has unfolded, that we should recognize someone who is doing everything the right way. Take a moment to praise Matt Ryan today.