Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hasn’t lost a step ... yet. In fact, notwithstanding some of the irrational criticism he endured last season, Ryan nearly replicated his MVP campaign, at least from a statistical standpoint. But just like all great pros, Ryan will one day walk into an NFL locker rooms as a player for a last time. He will wear a Falcons jersey one last time. He will line up under center as the greatest quarterback in our franchise’s history [you guessed it!] one last time.
And so at some point, hopefully a few years down the road, the Falcons will begin to think about their future after Ryan. I’d like to think he can somehow stay productive into his forties like Vinny Testaverde, Warren Moon, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady. But we are all trained to think of those men as anomalies. They are the exception to the rule in the modern NFL, or so it goes. Boiled down to its core components, the argument goes something like this: In 2019, the players are too good and the long-term physical impact of playing the game is too great for quarterbacks to play at a high level into their mid-to-late 30s. Plus the NFL pipeline never stops flowing, and every year we’re forced to endure analysis of this year’s crop of “franchise quarterbacks,” most of whom wind up getting infamously tackled by their center’s butt or similarly underwhelm. But how does that logic hold up when we check the numbers.
In February 2016, the Wall Street Journal’s Rob Arthur wrote an article called “The Shrinking Shelf Life of NFL Players.” (To be clear, his analysis wasn’t about quarterbacks specifically.) Arthur’s thesis came under attack by Football Outsiders’ Zach Binney, who questioned some of the underlying data. And then just last September, Mile High Report’s Joe Mahoney wrote a fantastic piece explaining how we are in some ways entering “unchartered territory” as we try to predict the longevity of the some current veteran QBs still starting in the NFL.
Traditionally year thirty has represented some kind of emblematic peak in the career of most quarterbacks. But we’ve seen countless quarterbacks disprove that theory. And let’s be honest, the physical demands on quarterbacks are different than those placed on skill players or linemen. Favre, for example, can probably still throw the football and diagnose offenses well enough to play above replacement level, even if it’d take him six or seven seconds to run a forty yard dash. But it’d take one well-timed hit from any of the pass rushers lighting the league on fire right now to quickly end that experiment. That’s what this comes down to for all of the great quarterbacks. If you can’t take the physical punishment anymore, or if recovery between games takes too long, then your days are numbered.
The bottom line is this: Knowing what we know now, there’s no reason to think Ryan is anywhere near a regression. He’s a pro’s pro, and I’m confident he will play out the remaining five years on his current deal at or near his present ability. Trying to predict what he could do from there is as inexact as inexact science gets. But know this, Ryan isn’t the norm. He isn’t average. So don’t treat him like a “regular” player, because he’s anything but that.