The Ballad of Matt Ryan

I’ve always been captivated by the idea of a tragic hero (someone doomed to failure) in literature, and I think it’s an idea that applies well to sports, too. Think about Ernie Banks on the Chicago Cubs — maybe the best example of all — an historically elite player stuck on a perennially awful team. There are more contemporary examples, as well, of course. In basketball, Anthony Davis is one: a top-1o player mired in the swamp of a poor supporting cast.

The point of this long, somewhat-off-topic, introduction is that I think a strong case can be made for viewing Matt Ryan as a tragic hero, as well. He’s had a successful career, and is a consensus solid quarterback on a good team, but has never truly achieved either the success or reputation that many of his peers have enjoyed.

I remember my first introduction to Matt Ryan. He was the quarterback of a Boston College team, one that I watched beat Notre Dame by a score of 27–14 on October 13, 2007. That was far from his best win (or moment) in college, but I remember it well because it was my first time watching him play. I also remember when the Atlanta Falcons drafted him, and how I thought it was a good choice.

Since that date, Ryan has been the most dependable and recognizable football player in the city of Atlanta. He has had consistent, measured success, leading the team to some of the best seasons in its history and multiple playoff appearances. The high points of his professional career care the 13–3 2010 season, or the (also 13–3) 2012 season that brought an NFC Championship appearance.

So why is Ryan a tragic figure? With consistent success, and an established reputation, he would seem to be an odd candidate for such a title. The reasons are twofold: the first is that he has never achieved the success that his talent would suggest he deserves, and the second is that he has continually been victimized by a bad reputation.

The lack of ultimate postseason success is easy to quantify. The Atlanta Falcons have never won a Super Bowl, and Ryan hasn’t been able to get the team to that level, either. Teams with quarterbacks that are solidly in Ryan’s “tier” (just below “elite”) have won multiple Super Bowls — Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, 2016 Peyton Manning — but “Matty Ice” has never reached that threshold.

This isn’t to say that Ryan was ever cheated out of a Super Bowl appearance, or that the laws of the universe are somehow conspiring against him. Rather, it’s to say that he has watched several quarterbacks who he is at least as talented as hold up the Lombardi Trophy in February. Ryan is easily good enough to be the quarterback on a Super Bowl-winning team, and yet it has never happened.

Secondly, Ryan doesn’t have a great reputation. Despite being a consistently very good quarterback for years, he is often viewed as “not-good-enough,” or “not-clutch-enough.” This piece from USA Today sums up some of the buzz around him well: he gets more criticism than he deserves. Sure, this isn’t quite to the level of people criticizing Aaron Rodgers when the Green Bay Packers can’t win games, but laying the Falcons’ lack of a Super Bowl ring during Ryan’s tenure at the feet of the starting QB isn’t fair.

So what’s next for Ryan? As far as this season goes, probably another playoff appearance. The Falcons would win their division if the season ended today, and seem like the favorites to represent the NFC South in January. Given home-field status in the first round, Atlanta could easily win that matchup. However, with a likely road game against either Seattle or Dallas next, the road would get much harder at that point. Difficult, but not un-winnable. As long as Ryan (and star wideout Julio Jones), it’s hard to count the Falcons out of any game.

In all likelihood, another elite offense will be able to outscore Ryan and his teammates at some point, and the Falcons probably won’t get past the divisional or conference championship round of the playoffs. But if that happens, don’t lay the blame at Ryan’s feet. He doesn’t deserve it.

Matt Ryan is putting together another quiet-but-great season as the Falcon’s best player. This may be as good as it ever gets for him in Atlanta, but don’t forget how much he’s accomplished here.

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