After months of hand-wringing and conjecture over what the Atlanta Falcons should and shouldn’t do when it came to its quarterback spot, sitting pat and giving the incumbent a chance to win is the right the Falcons have identified as the right one.
Well, or so it seems at the moment. The game of chance you play with a quarterback well into the back nine of his prime never makes for easy decisions, and this new Falcons regime could’ve easily gone ahead and rushed into the future by picking a QB fourth overall last Thursday night. They didn’t, though. They’ve bet on Matt Ryan, the 13-year starter and former MVP, to turn this ship around and get this team back to scoring points and winning games, likely for at least the next couple of seasons.
There was a weird “either/or” cloud that rested over the entire conversation on what the new regime had to do to address the QB situation. You were either “Team Matty Ice” or “Team Draft a New Guy,” something that extended to the staff here. You either had to throw all your support behind keeping Ryan and keeping Ryan only, or you were ready to ship the Mattural out on the midnight train away from Georgia in favor of a new quarterback.
The reality rested, of course, somewhere in the middle. You couldn’t have blamed the team for wanting to draft a potentially great player like Justin Fields or Trey Lance, but you can’t blame them, either, for wanting to stick with one of the best quarterbacks drafted in the last 15 years. Regardless of how you feel about him, Ryan has been one of the most steady guys in his generation at one of the most tenuous positions in the NFL, and there are no faults with hitching your wagon to someone like that as you get started building your team.
It’s a wise bet, in my opinion. Ryan hasn’t had a consistently good play caller since the 2016 season, a season where he was arguably the best quarterback in the NFL and won an MVP. Steve Sarkisian wasn’t nearly as ineffective as Dirk Koetter was in his second stint, but neither guy really gave Ryan the creative spark he had with Kyle Shanahan. Ryan has struggled his entire career to find a play caller worthy of his talents (or at least one that sticks around) and at age 36, he’ll have the most intriguing offensive mind he’s had since Shanny, and in the form of a head coach who isn’t getting hired away for a cushier job. Arthur Smith, believe it or not, might do more right away than Shanahan did in his first year. He’s very good at what he does and has a system that won’t ask Ryan to throw 600 passes a year, which should only help him as he ages.
Do you remember the first year of Shanahan? Everyone thought he’d broken Ryan as Shanny’s system forced Ryan outside of his comfort zone, but increased comfort and a lot of work between coach and quarterback set sparks off in year 2. It helped that Ryan had an elite center and better weapons around him, too. The results were historic. The team was winning games with a defense largely filled with rookies and journeymen, which they’ll have to do again. It’s a question of whether Smith can make Ryan comfortable and successful in his first year, and I like his chances.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean that the results will at all match 2016, because that’s just now how any of this works. Even with all the weapons in the world, historic greatness happens when you marry great coaching with peak performance and excellent injury luck, and we are not guaranteed all those variables here. It does mean, however, that Ryan has legitimate help in this new regime, a team that takes seriously where he is with his career and shows willingness to keep him afloat with an excellent supporting cast, even with the cap in the shape it’s in.
Trading Julio Jones hopefully continues to look more unlikely by the hour, so with Ryan’s longtime favorite target in tow, the team has Jones, Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst and Olamide Zaccheaus as his primary weapons, and an offensive line boasting former Pro Bowler Jake Matthews and emerging star Chris Lindstrom. Smith’s offense last year was posting fortyburgers on defenses without Taylor Lewan in the starting lineup, so the coaching seems like will be night-and-day to what Ryan’s had over the last few seasons. He may finally have an offensive mind again who is capable of elevating what’s around Ryan, rather than one who expects the quarterback to do all of that on his own. That’s big. As long as the team’s eventual winner at center can hold his own, Ryan can cook in this offense.
The “you have to draft a rookie QB to win a Super Bowl” argument isn’t necessarily the case these days, either. It’s never bad to invest in a promising rookie, and they can take you the distance on a dime, especially if you grab a truly great one. Patrick Mahomes II, though, is the exception, not the rule. In the last 20 years, quarterbacks not named Brady, Manning or Roethlisberger who have won Super Bowls on rookie contracts: Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Mahomes. People go back and forth about if quarterbacks win Super Bowls or not. Sometimes, they do. Ryan played well enough to win a Super Bowl in 2017. It’s often the coaching and a little luck that makes or breaks you.
The Falcons have put their investment in Smith to turn this team around, and it’ll be his mind and Terry Fontenot’s roster building that determines if this team can win a Super Bowl. Ryan’s a big part of that, but to suggest replacing him is the only pathway to victory is silly. We all know he’s good enough to get you the distance with the right coach. He’s not a Brady or Mahomes or Rodgers,
Did the Falcons miss on one of those guys in the draft? We can’t know that until a few years go by, and even then, though I know it will keep some of our team here up at night. Great quarterbacks like Ryan go their entire careers without winning a ring. Winning a Super Bowl is a funky accomplishment: the 2007 Patriots prove that. They went undefeated and lost to the goofy, 10-6 Giants. It’s one game, and it’s often decided by flukes and momentum. Winning Super Bowls is the point, but it’s not the ultimate barometer on if you made the right call in keeping your quarterback or not.
The Falcons are trying to establish a new culture; Ryan can lead that. The Falcons need a quarterback who can implement Smith’s scheme; Ryan can do that. The Falcons need a guy who can help its new wunderkind draft pick achieve quickly; Ryan is capable of that.
If the Falcons had drafted Fields, it would’ve been totally justified, given his stratospheric potential and fit in Arthur Smith’s offense. The new guys hedging their bet on Ryan is totally justified, too. For all the worry, the Falcons had two good opportunities and chose the one they felt would get them back to contention most quickly. The team can still find a really good quarterback down the road when Ryan’s time with the team ends. Ryan getting wins early and making the new guys look good will make “down the road” a much easier place for them to get.
In the end, the new regime is wise to stick with Matty Ice, then. He’s a pillar of consistency who they can mount a new culture on and the caliber of quarterback who can help Smith’s scheme escape its absence of a Derrick Henry and shine. Nothing is guaranteed in this world, but you have to feel good about this team’s odds, at least on offense. Ryan can get the job done. As long as Father Time can wait a few years, Ryan can be the guy. If not, the Falcons will have to pay a price to go get his replacement or pay a heavier price if they simply can’t find that replacement. It is not, I know, a move without risks.
If you wanted a new quarterback, I get it, I really do. But give Ryan a chance to get this team back to the playoffs. In the right situation, he nearly won the team a Super Bowl. He’s got the tools to be able to do it again if the team can put him in the right situation.