Matt Ryan arrived in Atlanta through the 2008 NFL Draft as the third overall pick. The franchise had just endured an awful 4-12 season with a rotating poo-poo platter of Joey Harirngton, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich at quarterback. That's because just one year prior, Michael Vick had been suspended for the dog fighting ring that would throw his career - and the state of the Atlanta Falcons - into complete disarray.
It's safe to say that a prodigy like Matt Ryan must have felt like a godsend to the Falcons. With 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and a rating of 87.7 the first-year starter would not only lead his team to an 11-5 record and a spot in the playoffs, he would also win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The Falcons had stumbled into one franchise quarterback just after losing another. Very few franchises can be so lucky.
Since then, Matt Ryan has been a modicum of consistency in the league. He's played in all but two games during his nine-year career and collected four Pro-Bowl invitations along the way. Up until this year, he's also led the Falcons to four playoff berths that produced a 1-4 SU record including a loss in the 2012 NFC Championships to the San Francisco 49ers.
That, in a way, summed up both Ryan and the Falcons. They were seemingly perennial threats in an always topsy-turvy NFC South, but they were hardly ever taken that seriously. Ryan himself would adopt the nickname "Matty Ice", which both described his approach to games…and unfortunately his performance in big ones.
An attitude about Ryan settled in during a dismal, three-year run where the Falcons went 18-30 SU that he was undeniably effective, but it was hard to call him "great", or loft him up in the elite category. There was just no evidence that he could get it done.
Now, a lot of this probably had to do with former head coach Mike Smith who had maligned the team with unimaginative strategies on both sides of the ball. In 2015, the club brought in former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to complement Ryan's cerebral approach to the game. Kyle Shanahan was then brought in as an offensive coordinator.
The going was rough as the Falcons finished 8-8 SU but the pieces were there. It often takes a couple years for a new coaching staff to gel with the incumbent personnel, and that's exactly what happened this past season.
The Falcons quickly anointed themselves as the best offence in the league, destroying records and becoming one of the top-10 overall producers of all time. Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy described them as a buzzsaw, and that's about as accurate as you can get with these guys.
Atlanta scored 33.8 points per game this season, and Matt Ryan had the best season of his entire career in the process. With 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns against just 10 turnovers and a rating of 117.1, Ryan put up MVP-caliber numbers.. Truth be told, it's his award to lose unless the pollsters view Brady as the guy this year.
So how did all this happen? Why the sudden turnaround? Was it Shanahan? Quinn? Did Ryan just turn a corner? We always prefer to single out one factor, but it's really a combination of all three. Ryan finally had an offensive coordinator who gave him a program he could thrive in, and he had a head coach who was happy to hand him the keys to the car.
We saw it during the Falcons' season on Hard Knocks leading up to the 2014 season. Matt Ryan was a star in the show, displaying the type of professionalism and poise that's needed from your team's best player. He was seen correcting the coaching staff that year on defensive reads, and lecturing his receivers on the types of things that they need to see so he could exploit coverage. Ryan has always been an intense student of the game. We've just been too quick to write him off because of eight lackluster seasons and a lone playoff victory.
It was always going to take a monumental effort to push Ryan into that "elite quarterback" discussion. That's exactly what's happened. Ryan is an example of what happens when consistency and patience allow for the right situation to be created. And now he is on the precipice of establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks to hurl the pigskin in modern times.
The only thing standing in his way at Super Bowl LI, unfortunately, is the greatest quarterback of all time.