Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Falcons QB Matt Ryan better than you think

In just six years with the Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan has established himself as the best quarterback in franchise history. Not that the competition is all that stiff, mind you. You have Steve Bartkowski and then whom? Michael Vick? Chris Chandler? Bob Berry? Oh, and Jeff George. Almost forgot him. If only we could.

In all, 38 quarterbacks started for the Falcons before they drafted Ryan out of Boston College and inserted him as their starter before he'd even been issued a plain black helmet with his name scribbled on athletic tape on the front.

Some like Joey Harrington and Billy Joe Tolliver are rather forgettable. Some have been completely forgotten. Jeff Van Raaphorst? Never heard of him.

I bring this up because ESPN's Mike Sando has ranked the NFL starting quarterbacks. Unlike most lists by media types that are nothing more than fun reading, this one has some merit. Sando has provided some research to make it official. He polled 26 NFL insiders -- 15 personnel men and 11 coaches. The quarterbacks were put into four tiers.

Ryan landed in Tier 2 and in a four-way tie for eighth overall with Tony Romo, Russell Wilson and Eli Manning. In other words, pretty decent. Not elite, but certainly better than your average Jay Cutler.

That's fair. Not only is it fair, it's also accurate. For the past five or six years, there's been a consensus among NFL people on the top four quarterbacks in the league -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. The order is often debated, but there's been virtually no question that those four quarterbacks are in a class by themselves. Now Andrew Luck has joined this top tier, according to those surveyed.

The second tier is headed by Phillip Rivers, then Ben Roethlisberger, then the aforementioned four-way tie. Joe Flacco is right behind them at No. 12. There are 10 quarterbacks in this second tier.

Second-tier does not mean second-rate. Look at that list again. Wilson Flacco Eli Roethlisberger.

Picking up on the trend here? Those four second-tier quarterbacks have accounted for six of the last nine Super Bowl championships. Brady and Manning accounted for four of the last seven Super Bowl losses.

So much for the "you gotta have an elite quarterback to win a Super Bowl" argument. If that were the case, wouldn't those Tier 1 quarterbacks have more than three of the last nine Super Bowl wins? Brady gets high marks because he has won three Super Bowls. But his last one came 10 years ago.

The Falcons had five consecutive winning seasons with Ryan at quarterback. This came after a bleak period in which they had only two winning seasons in their previous nine.

Even as the Falcons have won under Ryan, their defense has been average to poor. When their defense makes Geno Smith look like Joe Namath, somehow it's Ryan's fault. Smith completed 80 percent of his passes (16-of-20) and threw for three touchdowns. Not even Namath ever did that. Smith, by the way, ranked dead last among the 32 starters.

Somehow it's Ryan's fault that the Falcons gave up 379.4 yards per game (fifth-worst) and 443 points (sixth worst)?

Ryan has always had to overcome a bad defense. Now he has to overcome a non-existent running game. But somehow it's Ryan's fault that the Falcons ranked last in the league in rushing yards?

"But he's been terrible in the playoffs."

"Terrible" is an overstatement. He has played in only five playoff games. He played exceptionally well in two, decent in one, and not very well in two. He lost to Green Bay because Rodgers was unstoppable. He lost to San Francisco because the defense couldn't stop Frank Gore and because Roddy White got mugged on a potential game-winning drive. Guess that was Ryan's fault, too.

Make no mistake, Ryan regressed last season. He finished fourth in passing yards with 4,515 but also finished seventh with 17 interceptions. He was on the brink of becoming an elite quarterback. When the team crumbled around him, Ryan tried to do too much and could not carry the team.

Maybe he'll never crack into that elite group. But even so, it doesn't matter. He's plenty good enough to win a Super Bowl if he gets some help, namely a running game and some semblance of a defense.