Breaking down the 2017 Atlanta Falcons feels like performing an autopsy on a corpse – it’s a solemn process that requires careful precision to determine what has exactly happened, requires gloves and kind of smells like dead people.
Quarterback Matt Ryan – the reigning NFL MVP – entered with as lofty expectations as anyone who has ever donned a Falcons uniform. He was supposed to…
1) put up the same numbers as he did last year with no complications
2) win, or at the very least contend, for the league’s MVP again
3) to get the Falcons back to the Super Bowl and win it
4) repeat that process in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (c’mon you know how this goes)
But, that hasn’t happened, nor will it likely happen.
So, where are we with The Mattural in 2017?
Ryan has regressed to the Rya-verage this season. His numbers are a step back from the fireworks he helped light off in 2016, but they’re pretty on par for where he’s been the rest of his career.
Completions: 177 for 280 attempts (65.6%)
Passing Yards: 2, 157 (88 yards – longest throw)
Rushing Yards: 79
Total Rating: 92.8
If you watch a Matt Ryan game in 2017, it’s eerily reminiscent of his play from 2013 and 2014, where he was one of the few glimmering lights on an island with not many active bulbs. Though, the dearth in talent from those latter two years of the Mike Smith era is no longer a problem. Ryan’s offensive line is as good as it has ever been, his weapons are deep and he’s fresh off a season that saw him improve on some of his flaws (better use of his athleticism, forcing less throws, leaving his comfort zone and trying more deep balls, better learning to play with time in the pocket — yes, you read that correctly).
In Steve Sarkisian’s offense, Ryan lacks the explosive genius of Kyle Shanahan’s play calling. Sarkisian reportedly asked Ryan what his favorite plays were when he arrived, and incorporated them into a greatest hits playbook. That should have at least made this offense somewhat successful. But so far, Sark has lacked the nuance and scheming superiority to really make this offense hum. Ryan has withstood some of the play calling to really put on some nice tape, but his offense lacks the lasting prowess, particularly in the red zone, that it had a year ago.
In terms of quarterbacking, Ryan is giving the Falcons as good as he’s got. His mechanics don’t appear to be too out of place for where he normally is – some gripe about his inability to get the deep ball going, but after an offseason largely without Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel at full strength, and with the visible growing pains in Sarkisian’s offense, it’s fair to question whether Ryan has had the opportunity to organically settle in with a part of his game that’s never been his strong suit. Shanahan brought out the best in Ryan last season, and helped him up various aspects of his game we hadn’t seen the QB really harness before. Ryan’s MVP looks as much a partnership award with Shanahan as it ever has right now.
His best efforts this past season have been the season-opening Bears game, the team’s 2017 rematch with Green Bay and the Jets road win in the rain. In all three of those games, he posted up more than 250 yards in the air, and had an overall rating of 100+. His low moments have been the Detroit Lions win, where he threw for three interceptions, and the Bills and Patriots losses, which both saw him in jeopardy of losing his bafflingly-good 200+ yards a game streak.
To blame Ryan for 2017’s woes feels out of place. The quarterback isn’t the same piping-hot gunslinger he was in 2016, but it’s evident now that Shanahan’s play calling elevated Ryan’s play to a new plateau. He’s returned back to the player we’re more accustomed to seeing – one that thrives with a deep stable of weapons, plays better with a competent presence at center and needs a boost from the play calling to really make waves. He’s a naturally-gifted player, and an obvious top-tier talent at the position. But, Ryan’s not Aaron Rodgers, and he needs outside help to really be as good as his best self.
In 2017, he hasn’t gotten that, and it’s fair to question if a more seasoned play caller would help Ryan’s offense get back some of that blistering momentum they saw in their historic 2016 run. But, now is now, and you’ve got to think
One idea is to get Ryan more involved in the play calling going forward, and to pivot hard into the no-huddle. With the defensive problems of letting opposing offenses bleed the clock, a full-time switch to no-huddle just doesn’t seem feasible right now. And, Ryan clearly has his comfort zone, which Shanahan forced him out of each week of his tenure as offensive coordinator. Sark has allowed Ryan to stay more with what he likes the best, which hasn’t had similar results. But, the offense has clearly been at its best in the no-huddle and with Ryan taking more of a role in the calls, so the team definitely needs more of both, but not an outright switch.
Looking past this season, it’s tantalizing to consider adding in a Dirk Koetter-like presence to help him balance things out.
Gary Kubiak is said to be on the market for the 2018 season, and Kubiak’s experience in the zone scheme/in a Shanahan family offense, and his success as Baltimore’s OC in 2014, makes him an irresistible target if the team doesn’t see Sarkisian return. Koetter may also be available if Tampa Bay moves on from him after the 2017 season. He and Ryan always had an effective rapport, though Koetter’s offense is distinctly different than what’s being run now. Or, the Falcons could make a “baby, come back to me” call to a Shanahan assistant like Matt LaFleur, who may be allowed to seek other opportunities after a season in Los Angeles with the Rams, or Matt McDaniel, whose 49ers ground game has lead back Carlos Hyde with 494 on the ground so far (good for 13th overall in the NFL).
Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson, Philadelphia quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and Kansas City assistant head coach Brad Childress could also be popular names around the offensive coordinator market. With the roster what it is, Atlanta would likely have first dibs on any candidate they want if Sarkisian does not return.
For now, Ryan will still be Ryan, which should be enough. It’s the coaching that needs fixing. A little luck wouldn’t hurt either.
Oh, and Matt Schaub is still kicking, if you’ve been wondering. We hear he enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok, and is excited for the Thanksgiving season.
FWIW: Schaub makes a Kubiak hire all the more interesting. Atlanta’s backup was Kubiak’s starter for nearly all of the coaches’ Houston Texans tenure. He could, once again, help Ryan acclimate to any wrinkles the coach would settle in. That was reportedly a key to help make 2016 what it was.