The "elite quarterback" discussion just doesn't go away these days. Once you get past Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, things get a little cloudier. Is Eli Manning elite? He has two Super Bowl rings, but his numbers this year far from warrant the distinction. Is Joe Flacco elite? It depends on who you ask. If you ask Joe Flacco, yes. Yes he is. And is Matt Ryan elite?
First of all, the whole idea of the "elite quarterback" is an abstract media construct based primarily in narrative and only slightly in fact. Secondly, Matt Ryan has played extremely well this season despite losing Julio Jones for the season, having a severely hindered Roddy White on the field for most of the season, and having a catastrophe of an offensive line. The reality is, despite the fact that Ryan has kept the team in the top ten in passing offense with Harry Douglas as his de facto number one receiver, this team struggles to win any games.
Some people insist that if Matt Ryan were an elite quarterback, the team could win games despite a devastating rash of injuries, no running game to speak of, and the deficiencies on the offensive line and defense. They're adamant that this season has exposed Ryan to be not nearly as good as his stats suggest. This makes them fear for the future of this franchise, with Ryan earning elite quarterback pay and signed to a long-term deal.
Peyton Manning certainly is winning games this season, but he's throwing the ball to Demaryius Thomas, Erik Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas, with a rushing offense that is averaging 116.8 yards per game. Peyton Manning has only been sacked 15 times this season. The Broncos have a top ten defense. It's difficult to imagine what Manning would look like under pressure similar to what Matt Ryan is experiencing this season.
The most sacks Manning has ever taken in his career was in 2001, when he was sacked 29 times. Manning threw 23 interceptions that season, compared to 26 touchdowns. The Colts still had a top ten rushing attack, despite having an abysmally poor defense that season, and they won just five games. It was Manning's fourth year in the league.
Drew Brees has been sacked a lot this season, 30 times per NFL.com, and he's having a fantastic season. Of course, his sack and hit total is just 58, per Pro Football Focus. Brees has 4,500 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, just 10 interceptions, and his team is in a position to clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye with a win over the Panthers this week. The Saints have a lackluster run game, but their defense is top five in yards allowed and points allowed. It makes a huge difference.
In 2005, Brees was coming off of a tremendously successful season with the San Diego Chargers. He was sacked 27 times--the most in his career aside from the current season. The Chargers had a top ten rushing attack in 2005, and their defense was 13th in the league, yet they finished the season 9-7 and missed the playoffs. It was Brees' fifth season in the league.
Ryan is one of the most-hit quarterbacks in the league this season, with a combined total of 115 sacks plus hits so far this year. This puts the Falcons around the bottom third of the league. Teams like Cleveland (quarterback Brian Hoyer is on injured reserve, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell have both missed time due to injury), Jacksonville and Washington have allowed more hits and sacks than the Falcons' offensive line. They aren't in great company. Matt Ryan's receivers have also earned him the distinction of being tied for fifth in the league for dropped passes, per Pro Football Focus, with 35.
And the Falcons defense has not been a strength. They are ranked 29th in the league in yards allowed per game, and 27th in the league in points allowed per game. The Falcons are 25th in the league in pass defense, and 29th in the league in run defense, which is a ranking that has come with steady improvement, sadly.
For quarterbacks, it's difficult to execute when your defense and offensive line have struggled the way that the Falcons' defense and offensive line have. Peyton Manning didn't have an elite season in 2001 behind a struggling line and with a poor defense on the other side of the ball, and Drew Brees couldn't win enough games to get his team to the playoffs behind a struggling line in 2005. These are inarguably elite quarterbacks. Whether a quarterback is considered elite or not, they have to have time to get the ball out in order to succeed. The "elite quarterback" discussion doesn't matter if the quarterback can't stay upright.
Football is a team sport. The "elite quarterback" discussion impacts nothing but Matt Ryan's bank account. There's no reason to think that Ryan can't or won't overcome this bad season. The Falcons have to fix the offensive line, and address weaknesses on defense this offseason to give this team a chance to succeed.