By HAYES RULE
Photo credit goes to Sports on Earth.
On the third play of his NFL career, Matt Ryan stepped back and scanned the Detroit Lions’ defense for his first pass. It was September 7, 2008, only months after the Boston College product was selected No. 1 overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.
Large expectations were placed on Ryan, the heir to a Falcons’ throne that was left without a king after the very popular Michael Vick ended his reign in Atlanta after the 2006 season.
And did Ryan ever fill those expectations. He wasted no time.
Looking down the left sideline, Ryan chucked that first pass toward receiver Michael Jenkins. Sixty-two yards. Touchdown. Hello, World.
Now in his ninth NFL season, Ryan has led the Falcons to their first Super Bowl since 1999. He has been the catalyst all season, passing for career bests in yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), interceptions (seven) and completion percentage (69.9 percent).
Quarterbacking one of the best offenses in the NFL -- statistically, the Falcons rank first in points per game (33.8), second in total yards, third in passing yards and fifth in rushing yards -- Ryan has rightfully put himself in the conversation for this year’s league MVP.
But at the end of the day, how far will that go? People like hardware.
Atlanta sports fans are notoriously cynical because their franchises have a tendency to play well during the regular season but never live up to the hype in the postseason. The Falcons, in recent history, don’t buck the trend.
Before this year’s run, Ryan played in five postseason games and finished with the following lines:
*2008 (24-30 loss to Arizona): 26-of-40, 199 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 72.8 QB rating
*2010 (21-48 loss to Green Bay): 20-of-29, 186 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 69.0 QB rating
*2011 (2-24 loss to N.Y. Giants): 24-of-41, 199 yards, 71.1 QB rating
*2012 (30-28 win over Seattle): 24-of-35, 250 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 93.7 QB rating
*2012 (24-28 loss to San Francisco): 30-of-42, 396 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 114.8 QB rating
Five games: Passing yards average of 246 per game, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions -- not stunning numbers, but not awful.
In this year’s postseason, Ryan has torched both the Seattle Seahawks (26-of-37, 338 yards, three touchdowns) and Green Bay Packers’ defenses (27-of-38, 392 yards, four touchdowns). Because of his performance this season, Ryan has catapulted himself into the upper tiers of quarterbacks in the NFL.
But what if he wins the Super Bowl? What if he doesn’t win the Super Bowl?
Only seven active quarterbacks have at least one Super Bowl ring: Tom Brady (four), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Eli Manning (two), Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco.
With a win Sunday, Ryan would join that elite list as someone who did it -- largely -- by his own accord. He’s not relying on an elite defense, ala Joe Flacco or Russell Wilson. During the regular season, the Falcons actually ranked 25th in total defense.
Not only would he be capping off a probable MVP campaign with a Super Bowl ring, but he’d be defeating the Evil Empire. The Hoodie. The Golden Boy of the NFL. The Man Who Defeated Father Time.
The. New. England. Patriots -- a Patriots team led by arguably the greatest coaching-quarterback duo in NFL history in Bill Belichick and Brady. By beating The Golden Boy of the NFL, Ryan would be defeating the man with the most wins by an active quarterback.
Ryan would be the only quarterback not named Eli Manning to defeat Brady in a Super Bowl. (And we know how much of an OG legend Manning is for pulling that off. Twice.) Ryan would bring Atlanta its first Super Bowl and first professional title since the Braves won the World Series in 1995 (and only its second in 170 years of professional sports).
Ryan would become a Hall of Famer.
Yep, he would. Is it unfair to put that much emphasis on one game? Probably. But sometimes “fair” doesn’t equate to reality. Maybe a little premature? Most certainly.
But it would be a momentum-swinger for Ryan’s career. The Falcons have a young core, both offensively and defensively:
Ryan (31); running backs Devonta Freeman (24) and Tevin Coleman (23); wide receivers Julio Jones (28), Mohamed Sanu (27) and Justin Hardy (25); linebackers Vic Beasley (24) and Deion Jones (22); and defensive backs Robert Alford (28), Ricardo Allen (25) and Keanu Neal (21).
If Atlanta can defeat the seemingly-undefeatable Patriots, they would cement themselves as a certain contender for many years to come -- a potential new dynasty fueled by one of the best offenses in NFL history.
And it would be led by Ryan.
There have been plenty of historically-great NFL quarterbacks who have not won a Super Bowl (See: Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon). While Ryan has played unbelievably this year, his whole body of work doesn’t place him in the Hall-of-Fame-quarterback-without-a-Super-Bowl sector.
Maybe Ryan can continue to pass for 4,500+ yards and 35+ touchdowns over the next five to seven years of his career and eventually earn that pedigree. But that’s tough to count on, especially if Atlanta cannot win this Super Bowl.
Atlanta fans would return to their cynical state of, “We’ll never win the big game.” Even though it probably wouldn’t be warranted, people will question whether Ryan can “win the big games” and ponder just how great he can be.
But if Atlanta does win…
Matt Ryan: Hall of Famer. Book it.