Why Matt Ryan Could Be the Next John Elway

Why Matt Ryan Could Be the Next John Elway

Why you should care

Because this is an exciting second half.

Unlike fine wine, quarterbacks usually don’t age well. Their arms go out or they slow down. In any case, you don’t expect legendary performances from quarterbacks over the age of 30.

There are a few exceptions, the most notable being John Elway, who redefined his legacy after turning 33. From 1993 to 1998, Elway was a touchdown machine and won two Super Bowl championships. That’s when he became the legend we know him as today.

Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons is making his case to be the next Elway:

Ryan leads the league with 2,075 yards, 9.88 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 117.9

As the third overall pick of the 2008 draft, Ryan entered the NFL with high expectations. For the most part he exceeded the hype by leading the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons. Yet just as he was supposed to make the leap to “elite,” Ryan regressed to average. In 2012, he had a career-high 32 touchdowns and Atlanta held a 24-14 lead over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship — the Falcons blew that lead and lost their chance to reach the Super Bowl. The next season, star receiver Julio Jones missed all but five games, the Falcons fell to 4-12 and Ryan’s numbers suffered across the board. Now things appear to be clicking, despite having to play two of the best defenses in the NFL over the past two weeks: the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. At 31, Ryan has become the player he was supposed to be years ago.

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Matt Ryan before an Atlanta Falcons–Tampa Bay Buccaneers game in December 2015.

Source Rob Foldy / Getty

Dave Choate, managing editor of Falcons blog the Falcoholic, attributes the career turnaround to the relationship between Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now in his second season with the team. Shanahan also helped orchestrate the best seasons of Matt Schaub with the Houston Texans and Robert Griffin III with the Washington Redskins. The head coach in Washington then was Kyle’s father, Mike Shanahan. The most famous quarterback that Shanahan Sr. molded from a talented underachiever into a Hall of Famer was none other than John Elway. “[Kyle] Shanahan turned running back Tevin Coleman into a pass-catching machine,” Choate says. Then there was the signing of Alex Mack, arguably the NFL’s best center, which turned a promising offensive line into a great one.

But with never-before-achieved success, there’s always the possibility that Atlanta has caught unsustainable lightning in a bottle. Some of Ryan’s most successful plays this season could accurately be described as flukes. And some of the numbers are inflated by playing some awful pass defenses, like the Raiders, Saints and Panthers. Choate also notes that Ryan’s career interception rate is roughly twice as high as it’s been this season, and that too could start to rise.

Even so, maybe Shanahan has found the next revolution in the passing game and Ryan will be to him as Elway was to his father. This could be just the beginning, even at age 31.

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