COLUMN: Only A Super Bowl Ring Stands Between Ryan And NFL Glory
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 3, 2013 22:02
By the time you’re reading this, the Super Bowl will have been played and a winner determined. It’s my belief on the eve of the big game that the 49ers will be victorious.
With the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, their offense matches up as well if not better than the Ravens’, while the 49ers defense was second in the league in points allowed per game. For all the talk of Ray Lewis leading the team in his final year, Baltimore was an average defense in 2012, ranking 17th in yards allowed and in 12th in points.
While San Francisco powered past Green Bay and their high-octane offense led by Aaron Rodgers, they failed to do the same against the Atlanta Falcons. Boston College graduate Matt Ryan threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game. It was an impressive performance, but the Falcons fell just short of the victory in a narrow 28-24 defeat. The former signal caller of the Eagles led a 14 play, 70 yard drive in the fourth quarter, but could not complete a fourth down to have a shot at the end zone.
Failing to gain those 10 yards should not taint Ryan’s season. After leading Atlanta to the best record in the NFL on the strength of his passing, he won his first playoff game by defeating a Green Bay team that many considered to be the best in the league.
Matty Ice finished fourth in the league in passer rating and fourth in total QBR, an advanced statistic from ESPN that attempts to measure a player’s contribution on every play they’re involved in. Ryan was first in the league in Pass EPA, a major component of QBR, which ESPN describes as “clutch weighted expected points added on plays with pass attempts.”
The traditional stats back up what the total QBR and Pass EPA say—that Ryan had one of the best arms in the game. He threw for 4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns against 14 picks, and completed 68.6 percent of his passes, leading the league. And if you solely watched a game, oblivious to stats, you’d still pick up on his success.
A great example came in Atlanta’s fourth game against Carolina. Needing a field goal to win with a minute left and the team pinned at their one-yard line, Ryan connected with Roddy White on a downfield bomb of 59 yards. He then took the clock down with two complete passes totaling 13 yards. The Falcons won the game on Matt Bryant’s 40-yard field goal.
Ever since Atlanta started off by winning their first eight games there was consistent talk about how Ryan and the Falcons could perform well in the regular season but many doubted them when it came down to what really mattered—the playoffs. The sentiment was ludicrous then and is especially egregious now.
In Ryan’s rookie season in 2008 he led the team to the postseason, only to be beaten by the Cardinals, led by Kurt Warner, who would have been champions if not for Santonio Holmes’ toe barely staying in the end zone. In 2010 and 2011 Green Bay and the New York Giants beat the Falcons. Both teams won the Super Bowl.
When Ryan dominated the Seahawks in the first half en route to his first playoff win, he finally silenced the critics, who at their worst brought up the fact that Ryan lost to Virginia Tech in the 2007 ACC Championship Game. This was apparently proof he couldn’t come through when it mattered. (Yes, there was a time when our football team was good enough to make the ACC Championship Game.)
The Seahawks were widely believed to be one of the best teams in the league after a strong second half. Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), a statistic they describe as “[breaking] down every single play of the NFL season, assigning each play a value based on both total yards and yards towards a first down,” took a bolder stance. In the years that the website has measured DVOA—1991 through today—the Seahawks came in sixth overall. And Ryan was able to defeat them by throwing for 250 yards and three touchdowns.
So how did he get to this point from BC? In his first year Atlanta relied on the run game based on the strength of Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2008. There were flashes from Ryan along the way, including a win over the Bears in which he found a receiver for 26 yards with six seconds on the clock. Their kicker then booted a 48 yarder with one-second left for the win.
Ryan had been steadily improving in the successive years, becoming an above average quarterback over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The Falcons made the decision to hand the keys to Ryan in 2011 when they traded a pile of draft picks in order to move up and take star receiver Julio Jones with the sixth pick in the draft. The move was much maligned at the time, but now looks to be a work of genius.
Ryan didn’t truly become that player that he is now, a player that puts a team in contention for the Super Bowl every year, until he set career bests in yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage in 2012.
Until he wins a Super Bowl Ryan will not join the ranks of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Rodgers, but after the success he’s had this year, a ring is the only thing separating him from that group.