The clearest sign of Matt Ryan’s status within the Atlanta Falcons, of his importance to a franchise that was flailing when he arrived and had been for years before, was the sight of his striding into a Lincoln Financial Field news conference after a bitter postseason loss to his hometown team.
A year after squandering a 25-point lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons had lost to the Eagles in the NFC divisional round, 15-10, Ryan’s final, fourth-and-goal pass floating beyond Julio Jones’ hands and out of the end zone. Now it was time for Ryan – an Exton native, a Penn Charter alumnus – to talk about the game, and by his side as he entered the room and walked to the lectern were two people: his wife, Sarah, and the Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank.
The scene was a testament to the power and prestige that Blank had bestowed on Ryan as the franchise quarterback – belief and trust so deep that, five months later, the Falcons signed Ryan to a five-year contract extension with the potential to pay him as much as $150 million. He will begin his 14th season on Sunday, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Eagles, and the central questions that have defined his career – Is he a great quarterback? Just a very good one? Worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or just short of that standard for immortality? – have always been variations of a single one: How good is he really?
But while that uncertainty about Ryan has long bubbled among fans and the NFL’s cognoscenti, the Falcons have never expressed any doubt about Ryan since drafting him with the third pick in the 2008 draft. He was their guy then. He is their guy now that he’s 36; they had the No. 4 pick this year, could have drafted a quarterback, and didn’t. He has been for the Falcons what Carson Wentz was supposed to be for the Eagles.
In that context, the debate over whether Ryan deserves to be in the Hall of Fame is almost tangential to his true effect on the only NFL team he’s ever known. As The Athletic’s Robert Mays has noted, every argument in support of Ryan’s candidacy has a counterargument, and there is a response to each of those counterarguments, and ‘round and ‘round we go. He was the league’s MVP in 2016, but his team was guilty of the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history. He has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in his last 10 seasons and completed at least 64% of his passes in his last nine. But how impressive are those marks in an age when the league has made conditions more favorable to quarterbacks, and how often, if ever, has he been regarded among the top five quarterbacks in the league?
But relative to who the Falcons were and how they fared throughout their history before Ryan showed up, it’s difficult to imagine a player – other than Tom Brady, of course – having so profound and positive an impact. Over the Falcons’ first 42 years of existence, they had 10 winning seasons. Even when they were good, they were frivolous and quasi-irrelevant: Jerry Glanville and a young Deion Sanders and M.C. Hammer on their sideline, an out-of-nowhere Super Bowl run in 1998 with journeyman Chris Chandler as their quarterback. They thought that they had gotten themselves a game-changer in 2001 when they traded up to draft Michael Vick, but in 2007, Vick’s arrest, NFL suspension, and 18-month prison term on dogfighting-related charges left the franchise in chaos.
The decision to draft Ryan helped stabilize an organization that was adrift, that needed a fresh, clean start and a new face. The Falcons went 11-5 in Ryan’s first season, made the playoffs in four of his first five, and have had seven winning seasons in his 13 years in Atlanta. He has been a solid, often terrific, quarterback. Off the field, he has been scandal-free, able to answer even the most challenging question with intelligence and without generating much controversy, projecting himself as a leader whose character was beyond reproach. When an NFL owner searches for a franchise quarterback, those factors can matter as much, and sometimes more, than even a single Super Bowl parade.
“He had so much success early, which is very unique at that level,” said Glenn Thomas, who was a Falcons offensive assistant and their quarterbacks coach during Ryan’s first seven seasons with the team. “He was still unsatisfied with where he was and how he was playing. He was always trying to reach and be better. So every offseason we would pick two or three nuggets and try to work on those and try to improve his game every year. Every voluntary situation, he was there, lifting, throwing, trying to be better, and that’s paid off throughout his career.”
It paid off so handsomely that it might end up ending his career in Atlanta. That contract he signed in 2018 and the Falcons’ repeated restructuring of it threaten to hamstring the team’s future salary-cap freedom. At the moment, Ryan carries a gigantic $48.7 million cap hit next season, and before the Falcons restructure his deal again, he’ll have to prove – with a new head coach in Arthur Smith, on a team in transition – that he’s worth such financial gymnastics.
» READ MORE: Predicting the 2021 NFL season
The task will not be easy, not at all. The Falcons haven’t made the playoffs since that loss to the Eagles, since they came within one play of knocking off the eventual Super Bowl champs. “The reason I play this game,” Ryan said that night, “is to win a championship.” It may have been his last decent chance. The Falcons have gone 18-30 since, a three-year stretch marred by gobsmacking defeats that mirrored their catastrophe against the Patriots, and the only consolation for Ryan might be that his most difficult work was already finished. He already had made an irrelevant organization respectable. He is the most valuable player in the history of his franchise. That achievement might not be enough to qualify him for immortality in Canton, but maybe Matt Ryan was bred to a harder thing than the Hall of Fame.