Ryan's precedent-setting drop with Falcons could be a one-time thing
The Falcons' Matt Ryan may be the only quarterback of the Super Bowl era to pilot his team to 12 or more wins one season and then 12 or more losses the next -- while starting every game. But he's still a remarkable bounce-back canadidate for the 2014 season, writes Jay Clemons.
Last year, Atlanta's Matt Ryan (sacked 44 times) became the 10th quarterback of the Super Bowl era to produce double-digit victories one season (2012) and then lose 12 or more games the following season (2013) -- while starting every game of that losing campaign.
Dale Zanine / USA TODAY Sports
By Jay Clemons
ATLANTA -- In just six seasons with the Falcons, Matt Ryan is already the franchise's all-time leader with wins (60), home victories (36), completions (2,093) and yards passing (23,472 -- eclipsing Steve Bartkowski by two yards).
Ryan (153 passing TDs) could also own the club passing touchdowns record (154, Bartkowski) by halftime of Week 1, if he catches fire early against the Saints in the season opener.
In other words, Ryan's place in Falcons history is secure. And as time marches on, he'll redoubtably serve as the gold standard for how all Atlanta quarterbacks are judged ... especially when factoring in how a healthy Ryan -- who won't turn 30 until May 2015 -- could easily play another seven or eight NFL seasons (if not more).
That's the good news. Now for the incredulous portion of this piece:
In the Super Bowl era, Matt Ryan is the only NFL quarterback to pilot his team to 11 or more victories one season ... and then lead the same club to four or less wins the next year -- while starting every game of that losing campaign.
* * *
To demonstrate the uniqueness of Ryan's one-year plunge, here's a listing of nine QBs from the Super Bowl era to post double-digit wins one year and then flop miserably (team-wise) the next, while starting every game from that downtrodden season:
Doug Williams, Buccaneers (1979/80)
The Bucs enjoyed an Impossible Dream kind of season in 1979, winning the NFC Central (10-6 overall) and reaching the NFC title game (only to lose 9-0 to the Rams at home) -- just two years after the expansion franchise dropped its first 26 games in 1976 and '77.
As such, it's only natural Tampa Bay would have a regression to the mean in 1980, with the Bucs losing 10 of their final 13 games -- despite strong numbers from Williams (3,396 yards passing, 24 total TDs).
Brian Sipe, Browns (1980/81)
Sipe was the undisputed leader of the Kardiac Kids in 1980, helping the never-say-die Browns collect a number of comeback victories and capture the AFC Central title outright (thus breaking the Steelers' eight-year reign as division champs).
As a result, Sipe claimed NFL MVP honors for that 11-5 season.
Fast forward to 1981, as the Browns limped to a 5-11 finish (dead last in the division), a hangover consequence of the club's devastating playoff loss to the Raiders from the previous January ... when Sipe (3,876 yards passing, 17 TDs in '81) threw a red-zone interception in the final seconds.
(Cleveland was in position for a game-winning field goal against Oakland -- although it was a 50-50 proposition, given the extreme-cold/high winds conditions at old Municipal Stadium.)
Ron Jaworski, Eagles (1981/82)
Jaworski was a certifiable star for the Eagles during the 1980 and '81 campaigns, passing for 6,600-plus yards and 50 combined touchdowns in that two-year span.
But things started going downhill for Philly during the strike-shortened season of 1982, with the Eagles slumping to 3-6.
Oddly enough, if that work-stoppage year had included 16 games, Jaworski (2,076 yards, 12 TDs in nine starts) might have been a candidate for his only 4,000-yard passing season.
But alas, it wasn't meant to be.
Joe Montana, 49ers (1981/82)
Montana, arguably the most clutch quarterback of all time (four Super Bowl rings), never threw for 4,000 yards in a single season.
And just like Jaworski above, Montana might have pulled off the feat in 1982 -- if the players' strike hadn't washed out seven games from the schedule.
In 1982, Montana passed for 2,613 yards and 17 TDs in nine games ... but struggled to lift the 49ers from the doldrums of a 3-6 season.
The dreaded "championship hangover" might have had something to do with it, too, as San Francisco rolled to a 13-3 record in Montana's first full year as the starter (1981) ... while also claiming the first of five Super Bowl titles for the franchise (1981-94).
Jim Everett, Rams (1989/90)
Everett (34,837 career passing yards, 203 TDs) will likely never be enshrined into the Hall of Fame, but he's on a very-short list of NFL quarterbacks with the following stat:
**Combining for 60 passing touchdowns in Years 3 and 4
In 1989, Everett produced the only 4,000-yard passing season of his career, while rolling for 30 total touchdowns (29 passing). As such, the Rams advanced to that year's NFC title game ... only to get crushed by the eventual champion 49ers.
The following season, amid high hopes of a championship breakthrough, the Rams mustered just a 5-11 campaign, even though Everett threw for 3,989 yards and 23 TDs and made the only Pro Bowl appearance of his career.
John Elway, Broncos (1989/90)
Say hello to perhaps the darkest period of John Elway's decorated Hall of Fame career in Denver.
In 1989, Elway (3,051 yards, 21 total TDs) led the Broncos to their third Super Bowl berth of the 1980s. But a 55-10 loss to the 49ers (SB XXIV) took the starch out of that successful campaign (Elway rested the regular-season finale).
One year later, Denver fell flat with a 5-11 record, which included 1-9 stretch from late September to early December. Amid the Broncos' overall ineptitude, Elway still accounted for 3,526 yards passing and 18 total TDs.
The 2004 Packers (10-6 overall) opened the season 1-4 and then fought furiously to make the playoffs -- before falling to the Vikings at home during the Wild Card round (the infamous Randy Moss "mooning" of the Lambeau Field goalpost).
The following year, Favre (3,881 yards passing, 20 TDs) had to endure a substantial roster overhaul -- including the drafting of first-round QB Aaron Rodgers -- and a plodding 4-12 campaign, as Green Bay's offense tallied 23 points or less 12 times.
David Garrard, Jaguars (2007/08)
The 2007 Jaguars don't get enough respect, when contemplating some of this century's best teams to not win the Super Bowl.
With Garrard primarily under center, the Jaguars notched a rock-solid 11-5 record and put up an admirable fight against the 16-0 Patriots during the Divisional Playoff round. In fact, of Jacksonville's final 12 games from that '07 regular season, the offense amassed 24 or more points 11 times.
In 2008, however, all that goodwill vanquished, as Jacksonville slumped to 5-11 -- despite strong showings from Garrard (3,942 total yards, 17 TDs) and tailback Maurice Jones-Drew (1,389 total yards, 14 TDs).
The 2009 Bengals had a balanced attack, with Cedric Benson (1,362 total yards, six TDs), Chad Johnson (72 catches, 1,047 yards, nine TDs), Bernard Scott, Larry Johnson and receiver Laveranues Coles (514 receiving yards, five TDs) routinely taking the pressure off Palmer (3,094 yards, 21 TDs).
As a result, Cincy cruised to a 10-6 record and the AFC North title.
A year later, everything changed for the Bengals, who lost 10 straight games at one point and finished a disappointing 4- 12.
How bad were things in 2010? Palmer (3,970 yards passing, 26 TDs) attempted the most single-season passes of his career -- 586 atttempts, or 36.6 per game.
* * *
It's easy to blame the Falcons' 4-12 record from 2013 on a combination of misfortunes:
**The offensive line's lack of experience, toughness and depth (due to injuries) **Ryan getting sacked 44 times last season **Injuries to key playmakers Roddy White (ankle) and Steven Jackson (hamstring) **The Atlanta defense ranking 31st against the run (136 yards per game) **Opposing teams scoring 23 or more points 13 times -- including the first 10 games **The Falcons' rushing attack averaging just 3.9 yards per carry **Atlanta's defense ranking 29th overall with interceptions (10) **At some point, the Falcons trailed the opponent in 14 different games **Atlanta finished 12th among NFC clubs in turnover margin (-7) **The Falcons defense ranking 29th in sacks (32) **Atlanta's defense finishing 30th (tied with Washington) in pass deflections -- 57 **Five blown leads during the second half (all losses) **And a brutal four-game stretch in October/November (Weeks 8-11) ... when the Falcons trailed 27-6 (@ Arizona), 34-10 (@ Carolina), 33-10 (vs. Seattle) and 38-6 (@ Tampa Bay) at various points of the second half.
It's more difficult, though, to estimate just how much blame (if any) Ryan merited from that four-month debacle.
Plus, when charting Ryan's 17 interceptions, it's worth noting that seven occurred during a two-week stretch against the Cardinals and Panthers -- two top-five defenses.
He also posted 12 outings of zero or one INT.
* * *
So, what's the point of today's piece, other than acknowledging Ryan's precedent-setting win-loss devolution from 2012-13?
Well, when listening to offseason sports radio (locally/nationally), talking to various media members (locally/nationally) and consulting a number of preseason magazines (real-world and fantasy), there seems to be a vast chasm of opinions (numbers-based and emotional) on whether the Falcons' "championship window" has summarily closed.
And frankly, I can't decide which side of the fence to straddle heading into training camp.
Yes, Julio Jones (season-ending foot injury) and Steven Jackson (hamstring) are back at full strength; and yes, the Falcons seemingly did a bang-up job of building up the trenches (offensive/defensive lines) during the offseason, through free agency and the draft.
But are these changes enough to overcome the litany of offensive foibles from last year (listed above)? And how will the defense break its unfortunate streak of 13 consecutive games of 100 rushing yards allowed (team)?
As for Ryan, time will tell if last year's calamity was a mere blip on the radar ... or a harbinger of things to come.
After all, Tony Gonzalez won't be walking through that door at Flowery Branch anytime soon (unless he's working for CBS) ... and Roddy White won't be an ageless lock for 90 catches every year, when healthy.
Here's something to savor, though: Of the nine quarterbacks listed above, three passers (Montana, Elway, Favre) rallied from the one desultory season to have their respective clubs back in the conference title game within two years.