It's a debate as old as time. Okay, not really, but it is a pervasive debate surrounding NFL quarterbacks, and particularly Matt Ryan, and it gives us something to talk about in the offseason.
Recently, ESPN's Vaughn McClure facilitated a similar roundtable, inviting his fellow ESPN beat writers covering NFC South teams -- Jenna Laine, who covers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, David Newton, who covers the Carolina Panthers, and Mike Triplett, who covers the New Orleans Saints for ESPN -- to discuss Matt Ryan's and whether he'll ever reach elite status.
Laine thinks Ryan is a player who had been on the cusp of elite status, but described him as being potentially "a square peg" in a round hole in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Newton called Ryan's stats from 2010 to 2014 elite, but says his lack of playoff wins and his stats since that time, especially complemented by talent like Julio Jones, keeps him from elite status. Triplett says he's never seen Ryan as elite, but he could win a Super Bowl surrounded by the right supporting cast.
Our editors decided to weigh in on this debate.
The great elite debate! Who is elite? People were calling RGIII one of the best young quarterbacks a few years ago, and Andrew Luck just got paid more than the GDP of Bolivia (probably) despite a spotty playoff history. Ryan Tannehill is averaging nearly $20 million a year and I’m still not sure why.
Where does Ryan end up? I think he has been on the cusp for a few seasons. He looked right about there in 2012, and I thought he improved as a passer when dealing with injuries to Julio Jones in 2013 and the terrible offensive line in 2014. It just didn’t statistically show up with the terrible run game and even worse defense.
Oddly enough, his improved footwork fell apart under Kyle Shanahan. I’m still not sold on this scheme being a fit for Ryan, and based on Shanahan’s history, it does not appear that the scheme is very good for quarterbacks.
I think Ryan can be elite, but like just about every quarterback in the league, will struggle as long as he is hampered by either a bad offensive scheme or an uneven supporting staff.
No, and yet he’s still probably one of the ten or twelve best quarterbacks in the NFL right now. That doesn’t say as much about the state of quarterbacking in the NFL as you think it does.
Down year in 2015 aside, Ryan has been consistently productive and has played at a top ten level, even if his playoff record pales in comparison to, say, Joe Flacco, who has been a worse quarterback in nearly every season, but has both a magical postseason run and a Super Bowl ring to burnish his elite argument. We’ve seen enough of the Tom Bradys, Aaron Rodgers(es), and Russell Wilsons of the NFL to know what an elite player looks like, and we know that Ryan isn’t truly great when his supporting cast is weakened and there’s upheaval in the offense.
At the end of the day, though, he’s going to bounce back from 2015, he’s probably got 3-5 quality years left, and he’s the best quarterback this franchise has ever had. You can absolutely win a Super Bowl with him at the helm, and unless a future superstar magically falls into Atlanta’s lap in the next couple of years, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.
There are a few things I truly hate in life. I hate answering questions about the throwback uniforms, even though I like the throwbacks very much. I hate being asked if a hot dog is a sandwich, because it isn’t. And I truly hate the discussion surrounding whether or not a quarterback is elite.
I don’t know that I buy into this whole elite thing as a whole, anyway. There are a couple of quarterbacks in the league that you can make a legitimate argument for eliteness -- Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning at one point -- but by and large, effective quarterback pay is dependent upon a lot of factors in addition to the actual quarterback’s play.
It isn’t equitable to judge any quarterback’s performance without factoring in things like offensive scheme, pass protection, the run game, balls dropped by receivers, how much time the offense is spending on the field based on the performance of the defense, and so on and so forth.
Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback. His stats consistently put him in the top 10 at his position, but stats don’t win games. Teams do. Is Matt Ryan elite? Probably not. I don’t think he’s experienced the level of success, particularly in the postseason, that would cement that status. But Matt Ryan isn’t playing on an elite team, either.
Let’s be honest: this argument is going to happen every year unless Ryan can lead the Falcons to at least one Super Bowl win. Even then, it may not be enough to sway his critics. The issue is that the word elite is incredibly subjective. Does it mean a future hall of fame player? Or do we mean someone who is currently top 3 or top 5 or top 10 at the position?
Depending on what criteria you apply — and how you choose to measure it — a case can be made for almost any answer. Ryan’s critics quickly point out his playoff record while his defenders note that Ryan has never played on a team with a top-10 defense.
For me, Ryan is a good - and sometimes great - QB. As with all QBs, he is going to shoulder the majority of the blame and credit, whether right or wrong. Educated football fans know this and know that this is an argument that will never be settled.
In my personal definition of "elite," I believe the player has to be considered a future Hall of Fame candidate who was consistently in the top-5 of his position throughout most of his career. As of this moment, Ryan doesn’t meet that criteria, but he certainly can - and I ultimately think he will.
That said, not being "elite" doesn’t mean he’s not great. And it certainly doesn’t mean he can’t win the big one. I just think the label should be reserved for the absolute best, and I’m just not sure he meets that criteria right this moment.