The Falcons have all the pieces a contender needs to make a deep playoff run in the here and now, and given their insanely productive draft classes of late, they should be in great shape in 2018 and beyond, as well.
One of the biggest questions for this team is whether Matt Ryan can maintain the level of performance he put out in 2016, when he was the league MVP and led the Falcons to the Super Bowl. Part of that hinges on a host of factors having to do more with roster construction and the new offensive coordinator than anything else, but there’s also the question of how gracefully Ryan is going to age.
Back in 2013, Chase Stuart at Football Perspective broke down quarterback performance by age. He found that the average quarterback is well into his decline phase by age 32, where Ryan is today, but also that elite quarterbacks tend to have a much longer, flatter aging curve.
Quarterbacks peak at age 29, although the five-year period from 26 to 30 is probably better classified as the prime of a quarterback’s career. For elite quarterbacks, like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the curve is obviously much flatter; for the worst quarterbacks, the curve is just as surely steeper.
It looked like Matt Ryan was headed downhill beginning in his age 28 season, which was back in 2013. That year, he threw a career high 17 interceptions against 26 touchdowns. The following year, he threw 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, a perfectly solid year, but then followed up that up with his worst season as a pro as he adjusted to Kyle Shanahan’s system, throwing just 21 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. With the advantage of hindsight, it’s clear that run had as much to do with Ryan’s comfort level, his offensive line, and his supporting cast as anything else. More on that in a moment.
The MVP form we saw from Ryan last season is clearly what he’s capable of doing, and his supporting cast is basically undiminished with the exception of a couple of solid receivers, a Pro Bowl fullback, and one of his starting guards. That shouldn’t be enough to derail him, but the bigger question is whether Steve Sarkisian will be able to do the kind of work Shanahan did to get the offense humming in the first place. I believe he will, but chances are fairly good we just saw Ryan’s best season ever, one he will not repeat.
So how will Ryan age? He’s a remarkably durable quarterback who isn’t overly reliant on his physical tools, which will inevitably show some signs of decline as time goes on. That would set him up to age pretty gracefully over the next 2-3 seasons, at minimum, presuming his supporting cast holds up. Ryan is not Aaron Rodgers, who has taken frankly pedestrian talent to new heights for years. He is not Tom Brady, who has done the same. He’s more like Peyton Manning, late career Philip Rivers or perhaps the current incarnation of Brady, quarterbacks who can give you quality performances year after year, but need terrific players around them to deliver elite performance. That’s not a knock on Ryan, as most quarterbacks need that, but it does point to the importance of steering into the aging curve and offering him quality protection, in particular, to maximize what he’ll be able to do.
Even if he doesn’t repeat his MVP performance, Ryan’s ongoing durability and canny passing makes it clear he can keep being this team’s franchise quarterback for a while, though there are few guarantees once we start getting to the mid-30s. If Ryan’s going to be one of the few quarterbacks in NFL history to play well until 40, he’ll need several things to break his way. Nothing will be more important than the Falcons continuing to surround him with talent in the years to come.