After the catastrophe that was the Atlanta Falcons 2007 season, featuring everyone from Joey Harrington to Byron Leftwich under center, and the fun surprise of Bobby Petrino leaving notes in players' lockers and then sneaking out of town to a head coaching job, and eventually a very young, blonde mistress, at Arkansas, and a 4-12 finish from a team that was statistically near the bottom of the league in most categories, quarterback Matt Ryan out of Boston College was selected third overall by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL Draft.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Ravens didn't fare much better in 2007. The Ravens finished 5-11, and head coach Brian Billick was fired after the season. Quarterback Steve McNair was plagued with injuries all season, and backups Kyle Boller and rookie Troy Smith both got significant playing time, without much success. In the 2008 NFL Draft, Baltimore selected quarterback Joe Flacco out of the University of Delaware 18th overall.
These two quarterbacks will forever be linked because they share a draft year, and because they both took over struggling teams and led them to a quick turnaround. We all remember Matt Ryan setting the tone for his pro career with a touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins in the Georgia Dome in his very first NFL start against the Detroit Lions. The Falcons finished the 2008 season 11-5, with a wildcard playoff loss against the Arizona Cardinals. It was a big shift from the drama and failures of 2007, and the rest is history. With Matt Ryan, the Falcons have been established as perennial contenders. They have posted five consecutive winning seasons, and four playoff appearances in that timeframe, including a painfully narrow loss in the NFC Championship Game this season. Ryan has continued to improve each season, finishing near the top of the league among quarterbacks in most statistical categories in 2012.
And, with Flacco, the Ravens also finished with the season 11-5 with a wildcard playoff bid. Flacco led the team to victory in the wildcard and divisional rounds, losing to their division rivals, the PIttsburgh Steelers, in the AFC Championship Game. And, with Flacco, the Ravens have established a pattern of postseason success, including being named the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII following a 34-31 win against the San Francisco 49ers.
Another thing these two quarterbacks have in common, despite the way that both have elevated their respective teams, is a general lack of respect from fans and analysts alike. For Flacco, it's based on less than stellar statistics during the regular season, and for Matt Ryan, it's based largely on his limited playoff success. I'm not even talking about the "elite" discussion, but rather basic recognition of their talent and accomplishments.
For example, in this article from the Rockford (Illinois) Register Star, assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge asserts his belief that neither Ryan nor Flacco are top-ten quarterbacks in the NFL, with dubious reasoning. You can say a lot of things about both Ryan and Flacco--Ryan's only won one playoff game. Flacco's regular season stats aren't exactly awe-inspiring. But, it's a stretch to say that these two quarterbacks are not in the top ten among current players at the position.
Trowbridge's top ten are as follows, and it's important to note that he's dealing with advanced stats over cumulative career performances, not just the 2012 season.
3-4: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He justifies ranking Brady and Manning below Rodgers and Brees on career stats because these two have come up short in the playoffs too often. For Manning, that's legitimate, but Brady has three Super Bowl rings, while Rodgers and Brees both have one, so already, this listing is flawed.
5: Ben Roethlisberger. Again, this is based on his cumulative career. I wouldn't rank Roethlisberger this high, but it's clearly not my list.
6: Eli Manning. He's won two Super Bowls. He belongs in the top ten.
Now, those top six are debatable, particularly the order, but here's where things go completely off the rails, because Trowbridge ranks rookies Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III at 7-10, above Ryan and Flacco, and frankly, that's crazy talk.
This is not to detract from any of those four rookies, because all had exceptional seasons and all are quite talented. But if you're compiling a list of top ten active quarterbacks in the NFL based on cumulative career performances, and you exclude Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco for four rookies, it's confusing and more than a little suspect. Trowbridge writes:
There is not a team in the NFL that would trade any one of these four for Joe Flacco, and Baltimore would surely trade Flacco for any of those four.
Well, Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens knocked one of those rookies out of the playoffs, and beat another one of those rookies in the Super Bowl, so that may be a stretch. Trowbridge also writes:
It's less certain that Atlanta would trade Ryan for any of those four, but I think most NFL people would pick all four (if RGIII is healthy) before Ryan, even if it's for just next year, not long-term. They have been that good.
They have been good--but Ryan was truly exceptional in 2012, and his experience alone makes him more desirable.
All of those rookies were very good in 2012, but three of those four were reliant, at least to some degree, upon the read-option, and over the course of this offseason, defensive coordinators will adjust to the read-option. Remember the wildcat offense? Yeah. RGIII suffered two significant injuries this season as a read-option quarterback, and if Washington doesn't adjust to preserve his health, his longevity is a concern. Russell Wilson benefited heavily from an exceptional defense, as did Colin Kaepernick--which is an argument Trowbridge uses to detract from Joe Flacco. Andrew Luck is a more traditional pocket passer, and threw 18 interceptions. All four rookies led their teams to the playoffs, all four exceeded expectations in 2012. But did they do enough to be ranked in the top ten of all quarterbacks in the league, and above Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, based on cumulative career performances? No.
Yes, Ryan and Flacco are forever linked and will forever be compared. But, their greatest similarity may be how much the media and the NFL-following public love to downplay how Ryan and Flacco have impacted the successes of their respective teams. Throughout the 2012 regular season--and there was statistical justification--Flacco was consistently ranked in the middle of the quarterback pack, and now he's the Super Bowl MVP. And, all of Ryan's detractors didn't keep him from breaking team records, having a career year, and securing his first playoff win this season. The debate will continue--Matt Ryan has the stats, the Pro Bowl nods, the regular season success; Flacco has the postseason pedigree, including a Super Bowl ring. Both are very good. Both are easily top ten quarterbacks, in my opinion.
Vinnie Iyler from Sporting News writes the following about Flacco and Ryan, which sums it up nicely:
As incoming quarterbacks such as Luck, Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick keep raising the bar at the position, we can be quick to write off the good, still-young ones who have yet to be great.
It was a mistake with Flacco, and it is a mistake with Ryan.
Where would you rank Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco among today's quarterbacks?