The 2015 season was a rough one for Matt Ryan and the Falcons. After starting in promising fashion, the long losing streak in the middle of the season hit fans hard as the team came crashing back down to reality - and an 8-8 finish. In particular, Ryan had one of his worst seasons as a pro, struggling with poorly timed interceptions - particularly in the red zone - that frustrated fans even further. Carrying into this preseason, fans were hoping that with another year in the system, Ryan would play better. His rough outing in the third preseason game, along with another red zone pick, has made fans uneasy. That has lead to questions about whether Ryan will bounce back, and what the long-term outlook might be for the team if he doesn’t.
As we see it, there are three possible outcomes for Ryan and the Falcons. Much will depend on how this season plays out, and whether he can bounce back from a rough 2015.
Offense improves, Falcons stay the course
For many fans, this is the ideal scenario. Going through another year of watching our offense struggle to put up points is not a pleasant thought, and you’d have to imagine the team feels doubly so. The Falcons have invested a lot in Ryan, and their desire is for him to thrive in this system. If the offense does improve in 2016, you can bet that the team will likely try to keep both Ryan and Shanahan around past 2017.
What does improvement look like? Specifically, better success in the red zone and fewer turnovers overall. Both goals seem attainable, which would probably put the Falcons back in the top 10 of offenses in the NFL. While the record of the team is still contingent on how the defense plays, a top-10 finish for the offense would likely mean the team will stick with Ryan as their franchise QB for the foreseeable future.
Offense struggles, team searches for a new OC
There’s a vocal portion of the fan base that is quietly hoping for this option, and it is an unfortunately realistic one. Finding quality quarterback play is very difficult in the NFL, and despite his rough 2015 season, Ryan is still a quality quarterback with several years left in the tank (if not more). Ryan’s history with the team suggests that he is worth keeping around, though some would argue he’s overpaid for the production he’s provided recently. The team wants to see Ryan finish his time here
As for Kyle Shanahan, his history with Atlanta is pretty limited and is not flattering. Granted, many of the turnovers the team experienced during 2015 were out of his control, but many have argued that his offense was not a great fit for Ryan in the first place. Quite a few fans were disgusted by the opening series against the Colts last year, where three straight passes were called to Roddy White, who had all but disappeared in the new Shanahan offense. It felt like a slap in the face to the long-time receiver and his fans.
It’s not hard to imagine Shanahan being shown the door if the offense struggles again, but it won’t happen mid-season like some fans are hoping. The team will likely wait until the end of the season before moving on, unless the Falcons put a bottom-five, painfully bad offense on the field. If that happens, Arthur Blank himself may be the one to escort him out of the building.
If the Falcons did move on from Shanahan, the team would likely try to find a coordinator who will be a better fit with Ryan. We may see them bring in someone who is more intent on running a hurry-up/no-huddle offense, moving away from the West Coast system Shanahan prefers.
Offense struggles, team begins search for future QB
Of the three options, this is one that has begun to enter the minds of some fans. What if the issue isn’t the offense, but is really the QB? What if Ryan’s best days are behind him or he’s too “shellshocked” to get back to his previous form? Do we really want to pay big money to a quarterback who may never get better?
Lost in all of this discussion is how much money the team will dedicate to Ryan over the next few years. In 2016, his cap hit is 23.75 million and is identical in 2017. In 2018 - the last year of his current contract - his cap hit drops to 21.65 million. Those are not small numbers, and if the team feels Ryan is the issue with the offense, they may begin thinking about the long-term, especially in the light of his cap hits.
It’s hard to envision the Falcons drafting a QB in 2017, but I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. Even if he has a rough season, Ryan could still have value in a trade and the Falcons would net positive cap space if he’s not on the roster in 2017 and beyond. Ryan turns 32 next May, which is not old for QBs in the NFL, but it is past the point where you’d expect a QB to make a big leap in performance - though Carson Palmer would argue otherwise.
The team may also decide to move on, but not in 2017. They could “ride out” Ryan’s current contract, opting to try and find a replacement in 2018 instead. They could also look at drafting a “project” QB in the mid-rounds of 2017, with the hope that he’d be ready to take over when Ryan’s contract runs out. Moving on from Ryan in 2017 seems like the least likely option, unless something goes horribly wrong this year.
One last thought
There is one last option, though: the team struggles in 2016, but stays the course in 2017. Quite a few people have argued that the West Coast offense takes 3 years to master and the team could shock us all by deciding to keep both Shanahan and Ryan and giving them a third year to figure it all out. This thought tortures quite a few fans, but it is a realistic possibility as well. Much will depend on what the struggles look like, and whether they appear to be talent related, QB related or offensive-design related.
Personally, I’m hoping for the first option. I do believe Shanahan has a well designed offense and it sounds like Ryan has put in the time to try and make it work. If run well, it can be a very difficult offense to defend, as we saw early last season. Ultimately, it’s on the players and Shanahan to make their case.
We’ll finally get to see it all play out starting on September 11th. I’ll be watching with bated breath.