Guerry Clegg commentary: Matt Ryan makes Falcons Super Bowl contenders

sports@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 27, 2013 

As soon as the ink had dried on Matt Ryan's five-year, $103.75 million contract extension -- that is, about two minutes after it hit Twitter -- skeptics started ripping the Atlanta Falcons for overpaying for a quarterback who has one playoff win on his NFL resume.

They might have a case, except for this. The Falcons made Ryan the second-highest paid quarterback behind Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers not because he's done so much for the team over the last five years. Rather, it was because they have every reason to believe the best in Ryan has yet to come.

As it is, Ryan has already supplanted Steve Bartkowski as the best quarterback in franchise history. Granted, the list of qualified candidates beyond the top two could fit on a sticky note. Still, Ryan took the Falcons to within one play of going to the Super Bowl.

Until last season, Ryan was a second-tier quarterback behind the elite ones. But now he is one of the elite. Only Rodgers is clearly superior. Yes, New England's Tom Brady, Denver's Peyton Manning, New Orleans's Drew Brees and Baltimore's Joe Flacco have accomplished more. But Brady is 36 and his supporting cast has eroded. Manning is 37 and has lost some zip off his passes. Brees is 34 and is saddled with one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

As for Flacco, he and Ryan have been stride for stride in their careers. Ryan has been the more accomplished regular season performer. Flacco two Super Bowl rings, which cannot be discounted. But Flacco also has been supported by an elite defense. The second of those rings never would have happened if not for a busted coverage late by Denver.

This isn't to say that Ryan has surpassed those players. Clearly, he has not. But he has caught them and will surpass them as he reaches his prime. That could come as early as this season. To even have the point debateable is high praise. Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Brees and Flacco have eight Super Bowl champion rings among them.

As the braintrust of the Falcons, Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have done remarkable and unprecedented work assembling a talented roster. Most of that talent is on offense. Tony Gonzalez is the best tight end in NFL history and still one of the best in the game. Julio Jones and Roddy White may be the best receiving tandem in the game, and Harry Douglas is the perfect third man. To that mix, they've added running back Steven Jackson.

The defense has some solid performers. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, tackle Jonathan Babineaux, end Kroy Biermann, cornerback Asante Samuel, and now end Osi Umenyiora.

Any general manager and coach combination would gladly take that as a building base. But make no mistake about this. The Falcons begin the season as Super Bowl contenders for one reason above all others:

Matt Ryan.

He finished last season ranked fifth in the NFL among full-time starters in yards (4,719), quarterback rating (99.1) and touchdowns (32) and tied Manning for first in completion percentage (68.6). He has led more game-winning drives than any quarterback over the past five years. Yet, there remains some skeptics who believe Ryan's big numbers and wins are due to his supporting cast, but the playoff losses are his fault.

True enough, Ryan didn't play well three years ago in the playoff loss to Green Bay. But the way Rodgers played, it wouldn't have mattered what Ryan did. They lost two of those four playoff games by less than a touchdown -- 30-24 to Arizona his rookie season and 28-24 to San Francisco last season.

Ryan has played five playoff games. The five opponents were Arizona in '08, Green Bay in '10, New York Giants in '11 and Seattle and San Francisco last season. All five of those teams had better defenses than the Falcons. They were outgained on the ground in all four of the losses.

Somehow, those deficiencies have been overlooked. But that's nothing that a Super Bowl win or two won't cure.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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