When Kendall Jackson pointed out yesterday that Matt Ryan is on pace to potentially miss some annual milestones we’ve taken for granted over the years, it got me thinking about how Ryan has fared under Steve Sarkisian thus far, and how that compares to each previous coordinator he’s worked with.
I’m not looking to build a case to fire Sark or lionize Dirk Koetter or anything like that. Sark only has 14 games under his belt at this point, and Ryan has shown he can swing wildly between good and great depending on the year, the coordinator, the supporting cast, and how many lucky interceptions a defense gets. What I do want to do is see if we can trace an arc to Ryan’s career, and better understand what Ryan’s numbers might look like under multiple years of Sark.
Let’s look at how Ryan has fared in a very basic, stats-based way over his career under each coordinator.
Totals: 4 seasons, 14,238 yards, 95 touchdowns, 46 interceptions
Averages: 60.8 completion percentage, 3,559 yards, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions 88 quarterback rating
Unsurprisingly, given what he’s doing in Tennessee right now with Marcus Mariota, Mularkey kept a lid on Ryan’s potential. The Falcons under Mularkey were largely a run-first offense with Ryan doing good work to balance that out. Under Mularkey, he completed fewer passes, threw for far fewer yards per season, and averaged fewer touchdowns than with any other coordinator (with the exception of Steve Sarkisian, but we’ll get to that). He also averaged just 12 interceptions over four years, keeping the sheet clean, and the Falcons were a wildly successful team over that span.
It’s easy to forget now, but Ryan had an excellent rapport with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, and the Falcons made the playoffs three out of four years under Mularkey. They also sort of hit their ceiling once Michael Turner started to fade, and Mularkey was responsible for Julio’s semi-quiet rookie season in 2011. He was fired after the Falcons put up two points in a playoff game against the Giants, and it’s tough to argue with that.
Totals: 3 seasons, 13,928 yards, 86 touchdowns, 45 interceptions
Averages: 67 completion percentage, 4,643 yards, 29 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 94.2 quarterback rating
Ryan’s output ticked up noticeably under Koetter, though his stellar 2012 season does drag that average up. He completed more of his passes, threw for a lot more yards, and picked up more touchdowns on average under Koetter, though he also started to throw more picks on average. The end result was that Julio Jones emerged and the Falcons re-built their offense a bit, but they really only had one great year, one good year, and one mediocre year under Koetter, which mirrored what Ryan was able to do as a passer.
What is striking, now, is how easily Koetter was able to step in and coax immediate improvement out of Ryan. You can’t dismiss the assortment of pass catchers Ryan had to work with in 2012, but you also have to remember that Turner looked pretty cooked for much of that year, and the Falcons still went all the way to the NFC Conference Championship despite Mike Nolan’s smoke and mirrors defense breaking down at the worst possible time. Koetter parlayed this stint into a head coaching gig with the Buccaneers, but he did solid work with Ryan and critically did not suffer through any year one struggles implementing his offense, which can’t be said for the next two coordinators on this list.
Totals: 2 seasons, 9,535 yards, 59 touchdowns, 23 interceptions
Averages: 68.1 completion percentage, 4,768 yards, 30 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
Small sample size and all that, but you can’t dispute this: Ryan had one of his worst two years under Shanahan, and also his best season ever. The first year struggles came as Ryan reportedly was slow to learn and work in Shanny’s offense, with the team memorably collapsing after a solid five game start to the season.
In his second year, with a great cast of weapons, Shanahan doing excellent work getting guys open in motion, and Ryan feeling very comfortable in the offense, he was an absolute force of nature and snagged his first career NFL MVP award.
The big takeaways from Shanahan’s tenure were that Ryan could be that good with the right system in place, that Shanahan was a stellar offensive mind, and that any big changes in an offensive system could mean a learning curve for Ryan. The Falcons’ efforts to heed those lessons, and their inability to do so, leads us to where we are today.
Totals/Averages: 1 season (14 games), 65.2 completion percentage, 3,490 yards, 18 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 92.0 quarterback rating
I don’t think Sark was a bad hire. I think that the dropoff from Shanahan to Sarkisian was something we greatly underestimated, especially with the former college coordinator and head coach coming to the pros for the first time and calling an offense. The team has tried to keep terminology and the basic looks of the offense largely the same, but in doing so, they hired an offensive coordinator who isn’t as adept at the things that made Shanahan’s system work so well for Ryan.
The problem, then, has been that Sark has not been able to spring receivers, sow confusion in defenses, or make effective use of players like Taylor Gabriel who need to be schemed open to really make a difference. He’s shown creative streaks—no one who saw the throw to Ty Sambrailo or the Mohamed Sanu touchdown pass to Julio Jones can argue otherwise—but the little things that helped make Ryan an MVP in 2016 are just missing from this offense. Even that wouldn’t be such a big deal if Ryan hadn’t had several passes bounce off of receivers and become interceptions, or if Julio Jones hadn’t dropped so many passes in a truly bizarre season. It’s not hard to imagine Ryan throw four fewer interceptions based on a different bounce, Julio reeling in a couple of those balls, and Ryan sitting at close to 4,000 yards with 20+ touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions. At that point, the narrative is completely different, but we don’t live in that world.
Sark is a virtual lock to get a second year for the Falcons, and chances are Ryan and the offense will be more effective in 2018, especially if the team adds another receiver who can fight his way open without a lot of additional scheming from Sark. I do think that Ryan’s history post-Mularkey suggests that continuity is a good thing for this offense.
So what to make of Ryan? Under every single one of the four coordinators he has worked with in his career, Ryan has been a top 10-15 quarterback in the NFL. If you view his four years under Mularkey as the floor of what he’s capable of, and his MVP season under Shanahan as his ceiling, you get a guy who can help pilot you to the playoffs on a down year and a Super Bowl in a good year, and is remarkably durable to boot. It is obvious that you need to have a creative coordinator to really coax elite play out of him, especially given the results this year with an absurd collection of talent.
The question Atlanta will have to answer in 2018 is whether Steve Sarkisian is that kind of coordinator, and whether the results we’ve seen from Matt Ryan in this unlucky, unsteady year are a fluke or not.