“The only place you can go is up” is the best way to describe the Falcons going into 2014. Everything that could have gone wrong in 2013 essentially happened. Star players suffered serious injuries. Young players failed to develop. Dependable veterans drastically declined. All of those components culminated into a disastrous season.
Matt Ryan was one of the few players to emerge without getting severely hurt or struggling mightily. The franchise quarterback played admirably well behind a fragmented offensive line, while his star-studded trio of playmakers were never fully healthy at the same time.
For the first time since his rookie season, Ryan didn’t have the luxury of throwing to Tony Gonzalez. Not having the Hall of Famer around was always going to be a concern, along with another season of overhaul on the offensive line. The center and right tackle position didn’t have definitive starters. Sam Baker suffered another season-ending injury before the season, which forced Jake Matthews into shifting from playing right tackle to left tackle. The lack of stability up front, along with a talent-barren defense meant another season where Ryan had to play essentially perfect for the Falcons to win games.
Best Game: Week 1 vs. New Orleans
Ryan started off the season with one of the finest performances of his career. After notoriously falling short in shootouts against their biggest rival, the Falcons finally managed to prevail in a high-scoring affair. Ryan completed 31 of 43 passes for 448 yards and three touchdowns. His impressive stat line helped Atlanta’s top four wide receivers gain 69 yards or more. What could have been a 20-7 deficit going into halftime quickly changed when Ryan connected with Roddy White downfield for a spectacular 39-yard completion. That big play proved to be a massive moment, as Matt Bryant kicked a field goal to make a ten-point game shortly afterwards.
Ryan was as calm and collected as ever. With the Falcons’ defense getting torched, the franchise quarterback had to keep pace with one of the most high-powered offenses in the league. Ryan made several key throws across the field. To get Devin Hester involved was a significant step in the right direction. Harry Douglas made some timely plays, while Julio Jones showed no rust coming off a season-ending foot injury. This was a pivotal moment for Ryan in his career by out-dueling Drew Brees. It was the first time he had ever outplayed him in a shootout. For a season filled with mostly disappointments, this will be fondly remembered as one of the biggest highlights.
Worst Game: Week 2 vs. Cincinnati
The euphoria of beating New Orleans was short-lived in Atlanta. Following an electrifying offensive showing, the Falcons responded with a complete dud. The underrated Bengals’ front four wrecked their entire game plan. Their constant pressure forced Ryan into three interceptions, along with two sacks and nine hits. It’s one thing to have a letdown on the road against a decent opponent. It’s another thing to not capitalize on a golden opportunity. A.J. Green’s injury gave the Falcons a great chance to go 2-0. They ended up floundering in the worst possible way.
Ryan couldn’t connect with any receiver besides Jones. When faced with a third down situation, he failed to make the necessary throws to keep the chains moving. Only converting three out of 12 third downs derailed any hopes of putting together sustainable drives. As disappointing as the Week 17 playoff play-in game against Carolina was, everyone knew the Falcons weren’t a good team. They were fortunate to be in a historically bad division. Not making the playoffs wasn’t demoralizing in the end. For them to get soundly defeated by a Bengals team without their superstar receiver was a major letdown. It proved to be the start of things to come for that season.
What We Learned
This season proved a new regime was greatly needed. For all their success between 2008 and 2012, Mike Smith’s tenure had run its course. His poor clock management skills and flawed personnel decisions turned a once-perennial contender into a below-average team. While Thomas Dimitroff certainly deserved blame for several disappointing draft picks, Smith will ultimately be responsible for the Falcons’ demise. As Dimitroff continues to prove himself as a transparent general manager, Smith’s outdated defensive philosophy was once again exposed in Tampa Bay.
Similar to 2011, this season will go down as one of Ryan’s more mysterious seasons. He certainly played better than he did in 2011. His performances in big wins over Arizona and New Orleans deserve to be acknowledged. The ridiculous Monday night game against Green Bay validated Ryan and Jones as one of the best quarterback-wide receiver pairings in the league. A combination of having a non-existent running game, abysmal offensive line, and the worst defense in the league put the franchise quarterback in countless unfavorable situations. Ryan responded as well as he could in a one-dimensional offense. Thankfully for his sake, a complete overhaul eventually transpired in 2015.