The entire sickening sequence had played out for Matt Ryan – the sprint to the right, the realization that his best receiver and his only option on the play was covered, the backpedaling, the feathered pass that fell incomplete – and there was nothing left for him to do but scowl, shake his head, and turn his eyes to an ink-black sky.
A second consecutive season had ended in the worst of ways. Last year, it was the most gobsmacking loss in Super Bowl history, the evaporation of a 25-point lead and an overtime loss to the New England Patriots. This time, it was a fourth-and-goal call from the 2-yard line Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field, with the Atlanta Falcons' season in the balance in the NFC divisional round, against the team that Ryan grew up rooting for: the Eagles. This time, it was a play that never had much of a chance of success, in a situation in which success was the only option. Julio Jones went up. Jalen Mills went up with him. Neither came down with the football. Eagles 15, Falcons 10. Another season without a Super Bowl for the most accomplished quarterback in the NFL without one.
"One thing I've learned playing 10 years in this league is that past success, prior success, or lack of prior success really doesn't have any bearing on the following season," said Ryan, an Exton native and Penn Charter alumnus, who went 22 for 36 for 210 yards Saturday, including a touchdown pass to running back Devonta Freeman. "Teams have to come together on their own each year. I thought our team did. I thought we dealt with a lot throughout the year. I thought we handled it well throughout the year. We're certainly disappointed that we didn't go further and get the job done, but next year's a different year."
Ryan is 32, and by virtually any measure he's crafting a Hall of Fame career. He was the league's most valuable player last season. He's surpassed 4,000 passing yards each of the last seven years. He's gotten the Falcons, historically a woebegone franchise, to the playoffs six times. But he's missing that one element that validates any quarterback's case for Canton: a championship ring. Completing that final pass to Jones, completing what would have been a game-winning drive and dramatic comeback against a formidable Eagles defense, would have elevated him in the eyes of those who question whether he's truly among the game's elite.
On Saturday, though, Ryan didn't let the Falcons down as much as his offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, did. Under Sarkisian's West Coast system, Atlanta's offense had been inconsistent all season, and with everything on the line, Sarkisian couldn't bring himself to display any creativity at all. He called Sprint Right Pylon instead.
Sprint Right Pylon isn't just any old play. It's one of the West Coastiest plays in the West Coast Offense, a staple of a scheme that has been around the NFL for more than a generation and isn't the innovation it once was. Put simply, Sprint Right Pylon is predictable, so much so that when Eagles safety Rodney McLeod noticed that Levine Toilolo, Atlanta's primary blocking tight end, and not Austin Hooper, Atlanta's primary receiving tight end, was in the game, he suspected that the Falcons were going to run Sprint Right Pylon.
McLeod was surprised, he said later, that they would call that play. It would have Ryan accept the snap from the shotgun, eliminating any mystery about whether the Falcons would run or pass. It would leave Jones as the only viable receiver; after all, Hooper wasn't involved. And it would have Ryan, as the play's name gives away, sprint to his right, allowing the Eagles to focus on defending just one half of the end zone.
"I was like, 'There's no way they're going to run this play,'" McLeod said. "And as soon as I saw the tight end come over, I shouted it out. Yeah, I wouldn't expect them to cut off half the field like that. But they had a lot of faith in their marquee receiver, and Jalen Mills made a big-time play – probably one of the biggest plays of the game."
It was the biggest, and it erased what Ryan had done over the possession's previous 13 plays, driving the Falcons 74 yards, hanging in the pocket for an extra heartbeat to find Jones for a 20-yard completion on fourth-and-6, zipping another tight throw to Jones for seven yards to get Atlanta to the 2. The Eagles deserve great credit for their defensive performance Saturday, but if the measure of a quarterback is what he does when the pressure is at its apex, Ryan did his job, right up until a predictable play call hung him and his team out to dry.
"He's one of the toughest competitors I've ever been around," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said, "and the reason I say that is I'm with him every day, and I know how much he puts in, the preparation, the mindset to go for it. He's got to be one of the most resilient players I've been around."
He has had to be these last two postseasons. A year ago, he was so close to that Super Bowl. On Saturday, he was so close to securing the right to play in another one.
"It certainly motivates me," he said. "The reason I play this game is to win a championship. That's why we put in all of the hard work that we put in all of the time, and when you don't get that result, it's difficult. But falling short sometimes is the best motivation to keep pushing forward and trying to yearn to become a better player, to become a better team, and I've never shied away from that."
Besides, next year is a different year. For Matt Ryan, it seems it always is.