What a long, strange trip it’s been for Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan. Selected third overall in the 2008 NFL Draft after the fiasco that was Atlanta’s 2007 season, Ryan came in and immediately brought stability and capable QB play to a team that—outside of a precious few seasons with Mike Vick and Steve Bartkowski—had lacked it throughout their entire franchise history.
Ryan was initially brought in as more of a game manager for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s run-heavy approach, but exceeded all expectations as a rookie and allowed the Falcons to use a more balanced attack. Each season with Ryan saw Atlanta trend more towards passing and less towards rushing, and Ryan had some excellent years in Mularkey’s offense.
Eventually, after an embarrassing playoff loss in 2011, the Falcons moved on from Mularkey’s “old school” approach and transitioned to more of a downfield passing attack under new OC Dirk Koetter. Ryan excelled in the new scheme and led the Falcons’ to one of their best seasons in franchise history in 2012, proving that he was capable of succeeding as the focal point of the offense.
The success wouldn’t last, however. Atlanta’s neglect of the offensive line and defense caused a catastrophic collapse in 2013, and the rushing attack never recovered under Dirk Koetter. Another lackluster season in 2014 led to the firing of head coach Mike Smith and Koetter, and brought forth yet another offensive coaching change for Ryan.
2015 brought in the current head coach, Dan Quinn, who decided to hire the brilliant young offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan’s West Coast, play-action heavy attack was entirely different than Ryan’s previous two schemes. The 2015 season saw Ryan struggle a bit as he adjusted to throwing on the run, executing bootlegs and rollouts, and the zone blocking scheme.
The 2016 season revealed Ryan at the height of his powers. Now comfortable in Shanahan’s offense and surrounded by a baffling array of weapons and a quality offensive line, Ryan showed the NFL that he can be one of the league’s best QBs. He set career (and franchise) marks in nearly every category and finished with one of the highest passer ratings in NFL history, culminating in an NFL MVP award and a Super Bowl appearance.
While 2017 brought a significant offensive regression and yet another offensive scheme change—this time a relatively small one to Steve Sarkisian’s West Coast offense—Matt Ryan has taken it all in stride. Gone are the gaudy, historic numbers of 2016. In their place, the Falcons have instead won with excellent defense and a balanced offensive attack.
Steve Sarkisian’s play calling has been middling at best, but what he has done is allowed Ryan to have a lot of input into the construction of the offense. Despite the lack of production relative to 2016, Ryan looks comfortable and in control in Sark’s system. He’s been let down by his receivers, who are responsible for a shocking eight of Ryan’s 12 interceptions and have taken the Falcons’ from the league’s best team in terms of drops to one of the worst.
Matt Ryan deserves more credit for his performance this season. He’s taken his fourth coordinator change in his 10-year career in stride and delivered another quality season to Atlanta. Ryan eclipsed 4,000 passing yards for the seventh-straight year. After developing an undeserved reputation as a playoff choker, he has improved his overall playoff record to 4-5 and is 3-1 in his last four games.
What we’re seeing now from Ryan is a QB who is comfortable doing everything. He’s fine taking a back seat to the running game if the situation calls for it. When needed, he can throw the ball up and down the field and carry the team with his arm. Ryan can also show off his mobility, executing play-action fakes and buying extra time on bootlegs and rollouts.
Perhaps the biggest change has come in Ryan’s ability to navigate the pocket. We saw in 2013 that Ryan struggled mightily when the protection broke down. Over the past two seasons—using some of the skills he learned from Shanahan’s system—Ryan has become a veritable wizard at escaping pressure. It was on display time and time again against the Rams’ ferocious pass rush, as Ryan nimbly dodged Aaron Donald on several occasions to keep the play alive.
The propensity to scramble more often and attempt to run for the first down is also a byproduct of Ryan’s newfound comfort with becoming a more mobile quarterback. He’s a good decision-maker with the ball in his hands and has some decent speed to pick up extra yards on broken plays. While Ryan isn’t necessarily scrambling at a higher rate than at other times in his history, he is having a higher level of success: his 143 yards and 4.5 yards per carry are both the second best marks of his career.
Fans and analysts sometimes use the fact that Ryan has had so many coordinator changes as a knock against the organization. After all, continuity is important for an offense—and it does take time for players to transition between scheme changes, even minor ones like what we’ve seen this season.
An unforeseen consequence of playing in so many different systems, however, is that Ryan now has experience executing a wide variety of NFL offenses. The unique skills that he learned at each stop along the way—from Mularkey’s old-school approach, to Koetter’s vertical passing attack, to Shanahan’s play-action heavy system—are now all a part of Ryan’s increasingly versatile skillset.
That kind of flexibility is valuable. I’ve always thought that one of Ryan’s most underrated skills was his ability to learn and adapt quickly. He’s proven—time and time again—that he’s a scheme-diverse QB that can execute just about any offense you ask of him. The huge knowledge base he now possesses makes this Falcons’ offense more difficult to gameplan against, and I think we’ll see that even more throughout the playoffs and into 2018.
Ryan, through his 10-year career with the Falcons, has become a versatile weapon. He’s capable of just about anything going forward—and that should terrify opposing defenses, starting with the Eagles.