You never know what you truly have until it’s gone.
That expression has come to my mind on many occasions while watching the Atlanta Falcons this NFL season. It’s a saying that could never be more true for Matt Ryan.
A lot was asked of Ryan from the moment he entered the league as the third-overall pick in the 2008 draft. He was suddenly sprung into an environment where a franchise was seemingly back to square one after Michael Vick’s imprisonment earlier that year. It had just appointed Mike Smith its new head coach mere weeks after Bobby Petrino bolted for the University of Arkansas in the middle of a December night in 2007, leaving behind a four-sentence letter as his only notice for players to read at their lockers that following morning.
Enter Ryan, a lanky pocket passer fresh out of Boston College faced with a gigantic task: replacing Vick — a former poster child for the franchise — who dazzled the league with his unrivaled speed and athleticism at the quarterback position. A large contingent of Falcons fans within the city, consumed by the legacy of Vick — and many still are to this day — refused to turn the page at quarterback and accept Ryan as the next leader of the franchise.
But on his very first NFL throw — a 62-yard touchdown bomb to Michael Jenkins against the Detroit Lions in ‘08 — Ryan showed he was up for the task, and even set the course for a career that has been one to behold.
Just take a look at 2018 as a small sample size of that journey.
Matt Ryan is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career 👀🔥 pic.twitter.com/00d4iwd0to— Georgia Sports Now (@GASportsNow) October 23, 2018
From the outside looking in, it would be deemed a miracle that the Falcons (3-4) enter a bye only one game under .500 and hold a 2-1 mark in the NFC South. But peel back some of those layers, and found buried beneath the rubble of an injury-ridden roster you’ll find Ryan’s numbers through the first seven weeks of the season.
The Falcons franchise signal caller has been on an absolute tear since a lackluster showing at Philadelphia in the season opener, putting up numbers that rival those from his 2016 MVP campaign. But looking at the big picture, this type of streak should really best those feats of 2016 considering the Falcons lack a steady run game and their defense is practically absent.
Ryan currently ranks first in passing yards (2,335) with a completion rate of 71 percent, is fourth in passer rating (114.2) and fifth in touchdowns (15). Against the New York Giants on Monday night, Ryan became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to throw for at least 350 yards and no picks in four-straight home games. And upon completing his final 18 attempts Monday, it added to another astronomical streak of 203-straight completions without an interception which surpassed former Falcon great Steve Bartkowski for another franchise mark.
Ryan’s ability to thrive off the play action and spread the ball around has helped Steve Sarkisian’s offense thrive in 2018. He has connected with six different receivers — not including All-pro wideout Julio Jones — for touchdowns, including a 47-yard strike to Marvin Hall off the skinny post in the second quarter against New York on Monday.
If not for Atlanta’s current record, Ryan would sit near the top of the MVP ballot beside second-year star Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City) and Todd Gurley (Los Angeles). All the accomplishments have been despite the fact Atlanta is decimated with injuries on both sides of the ball, losing both starting safeties (Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen) and both offensive guards (Andy Levitre, Brandon Fusco) for the season, not to mention extensive injuries to linebacker Deion Jones (foot) and running back Devonta Freeman (knee, groin).
In Sarkisian’s second year as offensive coordinator, Ryan has been a huge part in the Falcons ranking ninth in the NFL in terms of points scored (27 PPG), and eighth in total offense. Atlanta has been in every single game they’ve played with the exception of a road loss in Pittsburgh, just another testament to Ryan’s ability to steer this offense.
It’s astounding that Ryan still hasn’t gained the full approval of his city, yet has done far more for this franchise than Vick ever did. They fail to look at the full scope of his 10-plus years in the NFL, a body of work that quietly puts him among the all-time greats.
According to NFL writer Scott Kacsmar, Ryan’s 44,131 yards in his 165 games played ranks ahead of Drew Brees (44,079), Dan Marino (43,151), Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. Pretty crazy considering Ryan has lacked a consistent offensive line for much of his career and played under four different offensive coordinators.
So far Ryan has led the Falcons to six playoff appearances, one NFC title and a Super Bowl appearance. People forget Ryan carried a perfect passer rating into halftime during Super Bowl LI, before an unfortunate second half denied the Falcons their first Lombardi Trophy. If Atlanta ran the ball three times and kicked a field goal during that final drive against the Patriots in the fourth quarter, Ryan would be a Super Bowl champion.
What he has done over the course of his career — and this season especially — has been nothing short of spectacular. It merits all the praise from this fan base.
How much longer must this city wait to recognize Ryan for the quarterback he is — a future hall of famer who has maintained Atlanta’s relevance as a playoff-caliber franchise for the last decade?
Before we know it, this incredible run will come to an end for Ryan. And some of us will be left scratching our heads, wondering how we missed it.
Sarah Woodall is a sports reporter for The Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org