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So…What Does Matt Ryan Need To Do To Become an “Elite” QB?

If Matt Ryan isn't elite, what will it take to get him to that level?

Kevin C. Cox

This article written by atlien698.

Last week, former Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez caused a stir when quotes surfaced from an interview with ESPN Magazine in which he suggested Matt Ryan was not quite an "elite" quarterback. He did go on to say, however, that becoming elite for Ryan is not a matter of if, but rather when, and simply a issue of Ryan having a few things to learn.

Gonzalez was asked to elaborate on these comments on Doug Gottlieb’s radio show the following day (Here is a link to the audio. The discussion on Ryan begins around the 15:00 mark). When asked by Gottlieb what Ryan needs to do to take the next step, Gonzalez pointed to issues with the offensive line (e.g., injuries and inconsistent play), suggesting that Ryan needs time in the pocket to make throws. He also lamented the injuries to Julio Jones, who was leading the NFL in receiving before being lost for the season and Roddy White’s nagging ankle and leg injuries throughout the season. While Tony certainly hit on some valid points, not once did he mention what Ryan had to do.

Fortunately, Gottlieb called him on this, following up with a specific question of whether there is something Ryan needs to do in terms of arm strength, avoiding the rush, making plays under pressure, etc. to become a better QB. Gottlieb insinuated that everything needed to be right for Ryan to succeed, whereas other top QBs seemed to thrive under chaotic conditions.

Gonzalez seemed to take issue with that, invoking the "Matty Ice" moniker and saying that Ryan is at his best when the pressure is on. He restated that it is just a matter of time before Ryan joins the ranks elite QBs such as Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

As Gottlieb pressed for more, Gonzalez stated something rather curious. Specifically, he said that Matt had to work on things "off the field." Huh? When Gottlieb followed up, it seemed that Tony dodged the question. Oh, sure, he gave an "answer;" but listen for yourself and let me know if you think he REALLY answered the question of what off the field things Matt needs to work on.

So this brings us back to the question in the article’s title. Despite stating that Ryan is just an "inch" away from becoming elite, Gonzalez never explicitly states what the Falcons QB needs to do to get over the hump, pointing instead to the conditions surrounding Ryan. I’m no QB guru and I’m not about to throw a bunch of stats at you to build a case. In fact, I can’t define what an "elite" QB is, but like Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And since there seems to be a generally accepted group of elite QBs (Brees, Manning, Brady, Rodgers), I began thinking about what it is about them that sets them a notch above Ryan – again just some of my non-expert, gut feeling observations.

Let’s start with Aaron Rodgers. Of the "Elite 4," Rodgers is the one who seems to be the most blessed with the knack for operating in chaotic situations. Who can forget the play in the divisional playoff game versus the Falcons during the 2010 playoffs when Rodgers managed to escape the clutches of a blitzing William Moore to complete a long pass downfield? More recently, in Week 17 of the 2013 season, Rodgers and the Packers traveled to Chicago to face the Bears in a game that would decide the NFC North. With 0:46 remaining in regulation, the Packers faced a fourth down and 8 from the Bears 48 yard line, trailing 28-27. After taking the shotgun snap, Rodgers avoided a blitzing DB, rolled to his left and fired a 48-yard TD pass to Randall Cobb for the game winner. And this was after Rodgers had returned from missing a few weeks with an injury. After all of the hoopla, the first thought that popped into my head was, "Does Matt Ryan make THAT play in THAT moment?" Posing that question to some of my Falcons experts on social media, the general consensus was "no." The scramble-and-make-something-out-of-nothing play has never really been a part of Ryan’s game (at least not as a pro). But this is one of those things that Gottlieb was alluding to, which Tony seemed reluctant to acknowledge. However, if this is not a part of Matt’s game, we can’t fault him for it. But this is an attribute that sets Rodgers apart from other not-quite-elite QBs.

Now let’s look at Brady. Sure, he has 3 SBs and a total of five SB appearances, but I want to look at a play he made during Week 6 of the 2013 season. Down 27-23 with about a minute to play, Brady led the Patriots on a comeback drive. With 10 seconds left on the clock, the Patriots were on the Saints 17 yard line. After the snap, Brady found Kenbrell Thompkins in the left corner of the endzone for the game winning TD. This was another instance where I asked myself, "Does Matt Ryan make THAT play in THAT moment versus a team of THAT caliber?"

We all know that "Matty Ice" has led some great comebacks during his career, but am I the only one who has noticed that the most memorable "Matty Ice" moments have come with Ryan leading the team to game-winning field goals? Yes, I realize he did what was necessary to get the win, but it’s hard to build a case for being "that guy" when you’re standing on the sidelines wearing a ball cap when the play that actually determines the outcome of the game is being made.

But what about all the times when the Falcons needed a game-winning TD late in regulation versus a quality opponent – e.g., vs. Saints (2012, Week 10), vs. Saints (2013, Week 1), vs. New England (2013, Week 4) and, of course, vs. 49ers (2012 NFCCG)? All of these were instances where a TD was needed and the Falcons failed to convert in the red zone. There was no memorable "Matty Ice" moment. And while we can point to things like Steven Jackson dropping a pass or some DPI that wasn’t called, etc., the fact remains that we do not have a catalog of late, game-winning TD throws by Ryan – versus quality opponents.[1] That’s the kind of stuff that many think about when tossing that elite term around, and it’s something each of the "Elite 4" has on their resumes.

And as for Brees and Manning, both are just so darn prolific. Brees is coached by an excellent play-caller and Manning is an excellent play-caller. When watching Brees and Manning at their best, there just seems to be an air of "we can’t be stopped" about them. There are times when Ryan displays this, but it’s rarely against the good teams and, even when it happens versus a quality opponent, it’s usually early in the game (think 2012 playoffs). Ryan put up some very big numbers in 2012, so perhaps continuing to work on his vertical passing can help light up the scoreboard to the point where we don’t have to worry as much about the defense.

In all honesty, I agree with the tenor of Gonzalez’s remarks. I do think that Ryan is on the cusp of being elite. He can make all of the throws and is a great leader. But I did come away a bit perplexed that Tony seemed only willing to discuss what everyone else had to do to make Ryan elite, but not what Ryan needs to do. Given that the Falcons have invested so much in the QB, why must "laboratory setting" conditions exist around him to be successful? What is Tony not telling us?

So, what say you, Falcoholics? If Ryan is just an inch away from being elite, what’s in that inch? Is it Ryan-specfic (arm strength, more clutch moments, prolificness) or, like Gonzalez seems to suggest, does it all point to circumstances surrounding Matt? Is it coaching? Do you care?

Whatever it is that constitutes the "inch" separating Ryan from elite status is quite possibly what is separating the Falcons from their Super Bowl aspirations.


[1] The one instance I can think of was the game versus the Jets in Week 15 of the 2009 season. I happened to be at that game freezing my [explicative] off. But Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez (ironic, eh?) for the game winning. And while the Jets were anything but "quality" at the time, they did make noise in the playoffs that year after backing in.