For all the beauty in its simplicity, the NFL still centers around a game that is at the same time very complex. With 22 players out on the field, there are a million different factors that give football its unpredictability. But no position is so quick to draw the entire focus as the quarterback.
Modern media coverage of the NFL thrives on it. Fans and analysts alike are obsessed with ranking and re-ranking quarterbacks. They are quick to judge and quick to forgive. With only a few exceptions, opinions on most quarterbacks change by the week. Yet for some reason, almost everybody assumes personal quarterback expertise.
How does this relate to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan? If you'll recall, my colleague Steven Godfrey pointed out that folks around the country seem to divide quarterbacks into two categories: "fantastic" and "bad" (and there's no in between). The former is populated by your standard top three signal-callers (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers) with perhaps the occasional Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers thrown in there. The latter has come to encompass everyone else.
So let's revisit that notion. Ryan lost in the first round of the playoffs and is now a career 0-3 in the postseason. Eli Manning would be the winner, and now flash forward a few weeks and his Giants are once again in the Superbowl. Manning, already with one Lombardi under his belt, now vies for another, and his potential place in the Hall of Fame (what?) has actually been discussed by TV analysts.
Ryan, on the other hand, has been thrown under the bus. Angry or irrational Falcons fans have been quick to jump on the "we need a new quarterback" bandwagon. The national spotlight at this point now has him firmly entrenched as an "average" QB, one who can't win in the clutch. He's solid but unspectacular in the eyes of most, with lots of criticism directed at his deep-route throws.
Never mind that Ryan played behind a horrible offensive line, or that the Falcons ran an ancient offensive scheme, or that he in fact does come through for his team when the game is on the line. "Ryan's not Brees, and therefore he's trash" seems to be the mentality. And that's where the real ignorance lies.
As much as ESPN would have you believe, guys like Brady, Brees, and Eli were not at all what you would call "elite" early on in their careers. Take a look at how they compare to Ryan over the first four years:
2008- 61.1% completion, 3440 yards passing, 16 TD, 11 INT, 87.7 passer rating (16 gms)
2009- 58.3% completion, 2916 yards passing, 22 TD, 14 INT, 80.9 passer rating (14 gms)
2010- 62.5% completion, 3705 yards passing, 28 TD, 9 INT, 91.0 passer rating (16 gms)
2011- 61.3% completion, 4177 yards passing, 29 TD, 12 INT, 92.2 passer rating (16 gms)
2002- 60.8% completion, 3284 yards passing, 17 TD, 16 INT, 76.9 passer rating (16 gms)
2003- 57.6% completion, 2108 yards passing, 11 TD, 15 INT, 67.5 passer rating (11 gms)
2004- 65.5% completion, 3159 yards passing, 27 TD, 7 INT, 104.8 passer rating (15 gms)
2005- 64.6% completion, 3576 yards passing, 24 TD, 15 INT, 89.2 passer rating (16 gms)
2001- 63.9% completion, 2843 yards passing, 18 TD, 12 INT, 86.5 passer rating (15 gms)
2002- 62.1% completion, 3764 yards passing, 28 TD, 14 INT, 85.7 passer rating (16 gms)
2003- 60.2% completion, 3620 yards passing, 23 TD, 12 INT, 85.9 passer rating (16 gms)
2004- 60.8% completion, 3692 yards passing, 28 TD 14 INT, 92.6 passer rating (16 gms)
2004- 48.2% completion, 1043 yards passing, 6 TD, 9 INT, 55.4 passer rating (9 gms)
2005- 52.8% completion, 3762 yards passing, 24 TD, 17 INT, 75.9 passer rating (16 gms)
2006- 57.7% completion, 3244 yards passing, 24 TD, 18 INT, 77.0 passer rating (16 gms)
2007- 56.1% completion, 3336 yards passing, 23 TD, 20 INT, 73.9 passer rating (16 gms)
Brady was solid all four years and very consistent, but nothing special. Brees was horrible early in his career, and in fact he wouldn't put up those "elite" numbers until arriving in New Orleans and playing for Sean Payton. And of course Eli, if you remember, was never very good during the early years. Giants fans wanted him out of town, and in Manning's case it was probably warranted.
Even more interesting is that around year five or six was then all of these guys really hit their stride, took that next step and started putting up the huge numbers. What all of this data reflects, then, is that A) Quarterback is a position that requires maturity and baby steps forward, and B) a good offensive playcaller can make all the difference.
Arguably, you could say Ryan has been better than all of those guys. He'll be playing in (hopefully) a more aggressive offensive scheme under Dirk Koetter- one that should still cater to his strengths- and he'll have a full offseason with which to work with Julio Jones and a (again, hopefully) improved offensive line.
Despite the team's inability to figure out postseason football, that still doesn't take away just how good Ryan has been in every other game the Falcons have played. Ryan is the franchise quarterback, and with him running the offense this team has a legitimate shot at the playoffs every season. That's something I don't believe the Falcons have ever had before.
So to come full circle, the nonsensical and pointless ranking and re-ranking of "elite" quarterbacks in the NFL is just that: nonsensical and pointless. It's all relative and changes like the wind: Eli in year four is garbage, while Eli in year eight is all of a sudden Hall-of-Fame caliber.
In part, I have to blame the reactionary world we live in. Everyone feels as though they have to decide what's black and what's white rather than sift through the shades of grey and (gasp) actually put thought into what they say.
But enough on that, because the playoff wins will come eventually for the Falcons, and perhaps maybe even a title. As for Ryan, I still stand by my belief that he can be elite, and I think we'll have a definitive answer to that question in the next season or two.
So for the love of football, please don't make me do this every offseason. Ryan's good, end of story.