Conceptions are built hastily in the NFL and endure with a resilience that belies the speed of their construction.
We knew who Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons were. They were the archetype of talented-but-soft, loaded with talent but perpetually undermined by the definitive, elusive ‘it’ factor, the ethereal toughness and determination that separates the champions from the boys who whimper at the sight of blood.
Ryan was the ultimate regular season quarterback, the lite, diet-conscious version of pre-2006 Peyton Manning. He put up big numbers, as impressive on paper as they were hollow in reality. Because if you looked him hard in the eye, little Matthew would scamper away back to his mother.
But Ryan was rarely the problem in Atlanta. He’s regularly been at the helm of above-average to elite offences. The failed 2013 and 2014 seasons were undermined by key injuries and the league’s 29th and last ranked defences by DVOA. The five seasons prior to those two Ryan took the Falcons to winning records and four times to the playoffs.
The playoffs, though, have been Ryan’s torture chamber, where his reputation was formed as lacking a certain lower body fortitude. Ryan is 1-4 in the playoffs, with three of those losses at home, and two defeats completely uncompetitive. When he drove down the field against the Niners in 2013 with a Super Bowl appearance on the line, he couldn’t get into the end zone. His lone playoff triumph is remembered not for his own heroics, but for the incomprehensibly conservative defensive scheme the Seahawks played to allow him to quickly get into field goal range.
And so Ryan’s career went, a talented but timid signal caller, destined to peer over the edge at success but absent the wherewithal to ever take the leap. His descent, from young star and elite quarterback to playoff failure and then, ultimately, to irrelevant stat accumulator – the spiritual successor to Matt Schaub – reached its nadir last season when Ryan gave real credence to his critics with a woeful interception-filled season. He looked like a broken man.
But this year Ryan has re-written his own script. It’s rare for a quarterback to so dramatically shift our opinion of him as Ryan has done this season. Sometimes players like Joe Flacco or Eli Manning will get on hot streaks, but we’ll accept those runs and process them accordingly, believing that high variance will occasionally produce brilliance. What Ryan has done goes beyond that – he’s gone from a quarterback who can’t win to one that can.
The statistical case for him being the MVP is powerful. He leads the league by a mile in quarterback rating (117.1) and yards per attempt (9.26), ranks in the top three in total yards, touchdowns and completion percentage, and finished number one in quarterbackR. And these numbers have come against the league’s toughest schedule of defences.
In the past, you could argue that Ryan’s success was inextricably tied to the transcendent gifts of Julio Jones. Not this year. Jones has been remarkable in his own right, but Ryan has spread the load in crafting not just the best offence in the NFL, but one of the best in history. Incredibly, he’s thrown multiple touchdowns to ten different receivers.
The other three credible MVP candidates all have flawed cases. Ezekiel Elliott, while breathtaking, is helped immeasurably by the league’s best offensive line.
Aaron Rodgers, returning to dragon status over the past six weeks, played for a team that plain sucked for its first ten weeks (it should also be remembered that in this commanding run, the only truly ‘good’ team that Rodgers and the Packers beat were the post-Earl Thomas Seahawks). Tom Brady missed 25 per cent of the season, and his resume isn’t breathtaking enough to compensate for all that missed time.
Ryan will be judged by most by his success or failure in the playoffs, but his work for 2016 and the first day of 2017 is in the books and untouchable. Whatever happens, he’s proven that he’s an elite quarterback.
Ryan has never oozed greatness like the generational stars, looking more like a suburban solicitor than the football God that Brady resembles. He just stands tall, goes through his reads, then executes. In the 2016 season, he executed better than anyone else.