FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – In a league with Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, it’s perhaps surprising that the best quarterback play in the NFL through the league’s first three games is coming from the Falcons’ Matt Ryan.
That’s not a knock against Ryan, it’s just that one might think that from an illustrious group that includes the league’s single-season record-holder for passing yards, a three-time Super Bowl winner, a four-time MVP and the reigning MVP would spring the current leader in passer rating.
But that title, for now, happens to belong to the fifth-year quarterback out of Boston College with his 114.0 rating.
For years, Falcons fans have second-guessed Ryan, especially in some corners as he succeeded the popular and enthralling Michael Vick, and wondered when he was going to perform like an elite quarterback – the question that seemingly every fan base demands of its field general and which, seemingly, all must answer.
In leading the Falcons to a 3-0 record so far, Ryan has played like an elite quarterback. It’s only the second time in Ryan’s career that he has posted three straight games with a quarterback rating of 100 or higher. (He also did it from Nov. 11 to Nov. 28, 2010, during the Falcons’ 13-3 season with impressive wins over Baltimore, St. Louis and Green Bay.)
Even at that, the average of Ryan’s three games was a rating of 103.8. So far, he has posted a 114.0, making it arguable that this is the best three-game stretch of his career. He has thrown for 793 yards and eight touchdowns with just one interception while completing 72 percent of his throws, the last of which also ranks atop the NFL.
“I think Matt has matured into Year Five,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said Monday. “He’s got a very good comfort level with what we’re trying to get done. It’s not just his arm-strength, it’s not just his decision-making. It’s his pocket awareness. He’s done a very good job, not necessarily taking off and running, but sliding in the pocket.
“We’ve had very good protection” — only four sacks – “through the first three games. I think it’s a number of factors. It’s another year with (tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas), having a great understanding of how defenses are trying to defend us and what coverages they’re running and being able to adjust our routes.” Among what are no doubt many good reasons, Smith neglected to mention new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. In an ego-less act in what is often a league of coaching egomaniacs, Koetter not only preserved the large majority of the Falcons’ offense when he took over, but he also learned the unit’s verbiage so the players would not have to learn his.
Koetter also has simplified the team’s offense. Ryan and the coaching staff have been reluctant to go into much detail about this aspect, but they often speak more freely when meeting with national broadcast teams prior to their games. FOX analyst Tim Ryan said during Sunday’s broadcast that former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey used to send Ryan into the huddle with as many as 12 different plays from which to choose at the line. Koetter has cut that down to about four.
All of that has factored into an environment in which Ryan’s confidence has soared.
“I feel as confident as I ever have, for sure, and a lot of that has to do with experience, having good experience and bad experience,” Ryan told reporters in San Diego following the game, according to a transcript on the Falcons’ Web site. “I’m now realizing that I can do it. I can make the plays we need to make in order to win. I think confidence comes from having a lot of talented guys around you…
“When you have those things going on around you, it helps you play fast, make good decisions and feel a confident quarterback.”
One simple reason for the increase in Ryan’s completion percentage is Koetter’s use of the screen game, which was virtually absent in Mularkey’s old offense. So while the Falcons’ offense hasn’t been as adept at running the ball as maybe it was in the past, it’s getting a lot of yards on screen plays.
“I think you can look at screens as part of the run game,” Smith said. “It’s a very similar play in some ways. Again, guys, whether we’re going to be a team that this week’s going to run it for 30 times or throw it 50 times, it really doesn’t matter. Our offense has one goal and that’s to go out and score every time.
“‘Are you a running team? Are you a passing team?’ That just depends on what we think is going to give us the best opportunity to win.”
And these days that might mean letting Ryan throw it 29 times in the first half, as he did in Sunday’s 27-3 win over San Diego, finishing with three touchdown passes before the break. To compare, in his rookie season of 2008, the Falcons let him throw it only 27.1 times per game on average.
If Smith has a greatest strength as a coach, it might be his willingness to adapt. He has gone from a ground-and-pound philosophy to realizing how futile it is to fight current trends – especially when he has a quarterback as capable as Ryan.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league,” Smith said. “The most scrutinized guy, probably besides the head coach, is the quarterback. When he’s playing with confidence, it permeates around the locker room. We’ve got a lot of guys playing with confidence right now.”
Chief among them is the quarterback, who is playing as well as any of the league’s biggest names.