It seems like it was just yesterday that Matt Ryan was drafted 3rd overall in the 2008 NFL draft. The promise of going to the Super Bowl always accompanies the drafting of a QB, but getting there for Matt Ryan hasn’t been easy. In fact, his road to get to this point has often been a difficult one, with various and sundry challenges along the way.
Coming off a rough 2007 season where the head coach left before the season ended and Mike Vick was convicted of dog-fighting, the Falcons decided to move on from Vick when they selected Ryan in the first. The fanbase was fiercely divided over the move, with many feeling that the team should wait for Vick to get out of prison. With expectations at rock-bottom, Ryan - along with the help of rookie head coach Mike Smith and free agent running back Michael Turner - helped turn the franchise around in dramatic fashion, finishing 11-5 and earning a trip to the playoffs.
Expectations for the Falcons in the playoffs were relatively low, so losing to the Cardinals in the playoffs - while painful - was not entirely surprising, especially with a rookie QB at the helm. Ryan would win the Rookie of the Year award and the hopes for the Falcons franchise were dramatically elevated.
Bringing in Tony Gonzalez gave fans hope that the offense would grow in Matt’s second year. However, the Falcons struggled early on and key injuries to Michael Turner and Matt Ryan hurt the team. Ryan would miss two games and the team would finish a disappointing 9-7, while also missing the playoff. The media quickly labeled the season a “sophomore slump” for Ryan, though fans were consoled by having the first back-to-back winning season in franchise history.
In a season that once seemed like one of destiny, the Falcons would surprise everyone by going 13-3 and earning a first round bye in the playoffs. Ryan bounced back from his 2009 season and played well for most of the year, though the team relied heavily on his fourth quarter comebacks to get to their 13-3 record. The team was still a run-first team, with Michael Turner also having a bounce back season.
Then the playoffs came. Aaron Rodgers came into Atlanta and proceeded to light up the Falcons with an explosive passing offense. The Falcons fell behind and their run-first offense was simply incapable of generating points quickly.
While the leadership of the Falcons began questioning the composition of their offense, the media began referring to Ryan by his unfortunate playoff record: 0-2. It would be a recurring theme.
The addition of Julio Jones in a blockbuster draft day trade gave many fans the hope that this offense could turn the corner. However, the same coaching staff seemed incapable of properly shifting the philosophy of the offense, insisting on still being run-first and using Julio sparingly. Fans grew frustrated as a worn-down Michael Turner continued to carry the rock 25 to 30 times per game.
Then it happened. The Falcons made the playoffs and traveled to face the New York Giants in the wild-card round. The offense was an embarrassment, with Turner being clearly ineffective and the Falcons passing game was predictable and boring. The team scored 0 offense points in a loss that still stings to this day. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder both “moved on” to other opportunities, but it was clear their positions in Atlanta were not going to be there.
Meanwhile, the stigma of being 0-3 in the playoffs was now an albatross around the neck of the franchise QB. Fans began to openly question if Ryan was the guy to “get it done” and many wondered if he was a “choke artist” when it came to the playoffs. Fair or not, Ryan’s status with fans became unstable.
With new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter coming in, the Falcons offense looked completely different. Julio became a focal point of the offense as the philosophy shifted from run-first to pass-first. Matt Ryan would end up with his first 4,000 yard season and the team would finish with the first seed in the playoffs yet again.
Going into the game with the Seahawks, the talk centered around Matt Ryan’s record in the playoffs. While the Falcons jumped out to a big lead, the defense fell apart, allowing Seattle to come back and take the lead with very little time left on the clock. It took another miracle comeback by Ryan to secure his first playoff victory.
The subsequent NFC Championship game still hurts many Falcons fans to this day. After jumping ahead 17-0, the Falcons once again allowed the 49ers to fight back and take a lead. Ryan performed incredibly well, yet it wasn’t enough. Ask any fan about the game and you’ll hear different things: “if Harry Douglas doesn’t slip, we score” or “we should have gotten a pass interference call against Roddy” amongst other reasons.
No matter what those reasons were, even though Ryan had finally shed the 0-3 label, he was immediately stuck with a new one: 1-4 in the playoffs. Criticism of Ryan quieted somewhat, though that would be short-lived.
In the worst season for the Falcons since Ryan was drafted, Ryan watched as his starting left tackle (Sam Baker), starting running back (Steven Jackson), star wide receiver (Julio Jones) and second receiver (Roddy White) all lose significant portions of their season to injury. The offensive line was made up of a bunch of unknowns who apparently wore roller skates on the field. The season would end with a 4-12 record, and many fans wondering what had happened.
Yet again, the Falcons suffered through another tough season, as the depth of the team proved to be incredibly poor. Julio would return and have a fantastic season, while Ryan was back to playing well, even without tight end Tony Gonzalez. The team was just not very talented across the board, and the defense was a mess. The 6-10 finish would end Mike Smith’s time in Atlanta. Fans began wondering aloud if Matt Ryan was worth the big contract he was awarded after the 2012 season.
Who can forget this season? The Falcons started 5-0, with the Shanahan offense impressing people every week. However, the luster quickly wore off as the offense fell apart down the stretch. Ryan, in particular, had his worst season yet. He looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable in this brand new offense, and his decision making was often awful - not something he had been known for.
The Falcons finished 8-8, but the noise around Matt Ryan hit a fever pitch. The off-season was filled with fans openly questioning whether Ryan was the QB the team should move forward with. Many fans suggested trading Ryan and drafting a new one, while others wanted him to be cut outright. The criticism of Ryan had reached a level that we had never seen before.
The criticism of Ryan didn’t get any better as 2016 arrived. Ryan was quietly booed at the season ticket holders event, and his reception at the games was lukewarm at best. After the week one loss to the Bucs, there were fans openly wondering if Matt Schaub should get the opportunity to start.
Obviously, the season got significantly better. After an MVP caliber season, Ryan is no longer “1-4” in the playoffs, turning in two dominating performances against the Seahawks and the Packers. Getting here hasn’t been easy, though, with many Atlanta fans resistant to accept him when he was drafted and many blaming him for the playoff losses through the years. He’s answered his critics in impressive fashion this year, though one game still remains.
No matter how the Super Bowl turns out, it’s clear that Ryan has overcome a lot just to get to this point. If he can bring the Lombardi trophy to Atlanta in under two weeks, his legacy in this city will look dramatically different.