During the latest edition of the FalcFans podcast, I was asked a really great question about new offensive coordinator and the approach they'll take with the offense, Matt Ryan in particular. It was an excellent question because Matt Ryan's role in the offense is often praised or critiqued, but rarely examined closely.
Ryan's nearly 30, so we know what he is at at this stage. He's a generally terrific quarterback who made a conscious effort to improve his mobility in and out of the pocket in 2014, and he's good enough to captain a prolific passing offense. His limitations really come down to decision-making, which can be shaky at times, and the occasional errant throw. Both of those weaknesses can lead to interceptions, and while he certainly doesn't come close to leading the NFL in picks, the ones he does throw are sometimes backbreaking.
For all that, he's quite good, and with the state of NFL quarterbacking in 2015, the Falcons are in much better shape than most teams at the position. In my humble opinion, he's a top ten quarterback, though he's probably outside the top five.
All that parsing that happens about his exact level of eliteness misses the point. Ryan can win some games with a subpar offensive line and rushing attack, but not a plurality of them, and the Falcons have failed over the last couple of years when it comes to giving their franchise quarterback a supporting cast that will allow him to work comfortably. Instead, they too often relied on Ryan and his top receiving options to power an offense that didn't have much else going on.
Really, much of the criticism aimed at Ryan has been about him not raising the team around him to new heights, which ignores that very few quarterbacks in the NFL today do anything of the sort. The Falcons set themselves up to fail by building an offense that was heavily reliant on Ryan and a receiving corps that had one true stud, a trio of aging options and not much else in 2014, and predictably when the Falcons needed to achieve balance or look outside of the Julio/Harry Douglas/Roddy White trio, they never could get much going. That's a recipe for limited success, and a road of blame that leads right back to the quarterback.
With new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on his way in and a re-shuffling of the front office heading into this offseason, it's time to make changes. The transition to a zone-blocking scheme won't be easy and can't solve every one of the team's woes, but smart talent acquisitions at running back and potentially along the offensive line should give the team a better ground game, which can only help Ryan. Picking up a pass-catching tight end and potentially a promising young receiver to groom gives Ryan more options, as well, and simply putting a healthier offensive line on the field will give the Falcons' QB more time to sit in the pocket and survey the field. None of this is rocket science, but it all improves the offense and makes life easier for the passing game and by extension Matt Ryan.
Another note. We would all like to see the Falcons give the keys to Ryan and let him run the no-huddle more often, but the bottom line is this: Without better personnel around him and more intelligent game-planning, there's a limit to what Ryan can do with that. He's not a superhero, and the no-huddle is not a panacea for this offense. Kyle Shanahan's job will be to seize the reins and craft an offense that plays more to Ryan's strengths, and the front office's job will be to get Ryan a better supporting cast that takes some pressure off of him.
In my mind, the Falcons have spent enough time trying to sit on Ryan's shoulders and swat at new heights. It's time to start putting Ryan in the best possible position to succeed and see just how far that can take this Atlanta team.