The 2011 season was a time of uncertainty for the NFL. With the lockout looming over the league, it left every team playing catch up for the majority of the season. High-profile free agents were signing with teams in late July or early August. Rookies had less time to acclimate to the pros. It was a disastrous situation, yet there weren’t many teams better equipped to handle it than the Falcons. They were coming off a terrific 2010 season where they exceeded all expectations going 13-3. Although the season ended on a demoralizing note against Green Bay, there wasn’t any reason to doubt their status as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The offense was expected to undergo some changes with Thomas Dimitroff urging the offense to become more explosive. Despite all their previous success, the Falcons produced the second-fewest passing plays of 20 yards or more in 2010. That’s why it didn’t come as a complete shock for them to trade up to select the current best wide receiver in the league. Matt Ryan couldn’t have asked for a better supporting cast from a talent standpoint. Would the coaching staff be able to get the most out of it? That proved to be the biggest roadblock in trying to transition from being a run-heavy offense to a more balanced attack.
His best game: Week 14 at Carolina
In what proved to be a infuriatingly inconsistent season, Ryan produced his best work in the final stretch of the season. He was essentially flawless in games against Minnesota, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay. Those performances did come against dreadful teams inside the Georgia Dome. That’s why Ryan’s best showing occurred in a vital comeback win over the Panthers. After falling behind 23-7, the Falcons’ playoff hopes looked to be teetering. For them to be crumbling against a subpar Carolina team was a troubling sign for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Ryan responded impressively with three second-half passing touchdowns. It started off with a beautiful throw to Jacquizz Rodgers on a wheel route. This was a great moment for Rodgers, who brought a new unique element to the offense as a rookie. Ryan threw his next two touchdown passes to another rookie, as Julio Jones had the first of his several big games against the Panthers. A massive comeback win over a bitter division rival proved to be a huge morale-booster for the Falcons. To see their franchise quarterback take the initiative was an important moment for a transitioning offense.
His worst game: Week 13 at Houston
The biggest takeaway about the Falcons from the 2011 season was their inability to beat the top teams. They fell short against the Saints (twice), Packers, and Texans before crumbling against the Giants in the playoffs. Losing to a T.J. Yates-led Houston team stung, considering the offense only scored ten points. Ryan only completed 20 out of 47 passes with two interceptions in what was his worst game of the season. Although taking 11 hits didn’t help matters, Ryan made some errant throws and missed connecting with Jones downfield on multiple occasions.
This game encapsulated what went wrong that season, along with slightly stunting Ryan’s development. They had a run-oriented offensive coordinator in Mike Mularkey with a future Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez, star wide receiver in Roddy White, and a future superstar in Jones. Not knowing how to properly utilize them, while continuing to heavily feature a slowly declining Michael Turner proved to be costly in these particular games. It greatly affected Ryan against top defenses or in matchups where the offense needed to score in bunches. This game put massive pressure on the Falcons going into the last four games of the season. Thankfully for their sake, Ryan responded the following week against Carolina and put the offense on his back.
What we learned
The lack of a clear offensive identity hindered Ryan’s progression. Even with his overall numbers being relatively good, his production came in bunches rather than steady consistency. Those big games came mostly against below average teams. When the competition rose, he faltered with the entire team. A once sturdy offensive line regressed without Harvey Dahl to go along with Sam Baker’s inability to pass protect or stay on the field regularly. What should have been Ryan’s first exceptional year turned into a frustrating season of missed opportunities.
It’s no surprise Mularkey departed following a season filled with setbacks. Not being able to find the right balance between giving Ryan more freedom and reducing Turner’s workload was a problem in nearly every big game. How they averaged slightly less than 24 points per game with a star-studded offense left everyone perplexed. To only score two points against the Giants validated the need for an offensive schematic makeover. A quarterback as good as Ryan couldn’t be saddled with an ultra-conservative, run heavy play caller any longer.