This should've been the offseason when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was seen in a different light. He'd won his first playoff game, steered his team all the way to the NFC Championship Game and earned his second Pro Bowl nomination with the best statistical season of his career. Instead, the past few days have created even more pressure on Ryan. The Falcons have done enough to make next season a disaster if he can't lead them to the Super Bowl.
The franchise did its part by talking tight end Tony Gonzalez into playing one more season despite his apparent desire to retire. It also dumped one fading running back (Michael Turner) to add another ball carrier (former Rams star Steven Jackson) who still can pound opposing defenses. Add those two players to Pro Bowl receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones -- and a solid offensive line -- and the Falcons don't merely look scary on offense. They very much resemble a team that should shatter records if the quarterback is on his game.
There's little doubt Ryan can do those things. He threw for a career-high 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns last season while leading an Atlanta team that few defenses could contain. Whether he can put his team in position to win it all this fall is another matter. He helped his reputation by leading the Falcons to an NFC divisional playoff win over Seattle -- after losing all three of his previous postseason appearances -- but that was only the first step in pushing his way into the rarefied air of elite quarterbacks.
The best quarterbacks in the NFL don't just win playoff games. They put their teams on their backs when necessary and come up big in the most critical moments. Baltimore's Joe Flacco proved himself last season. When the Ravens needed him to mature into a reliable clutch performer, he gave them 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and enough leadership to propel them to their second Super Bowl win ever.
Flacco was the second quarterback taken in the same 2008 draft in which Atlanta selected Ryan third overall. He has never had the kind of supporting cast Ryan currently has on offense, and he certainly has been far more maligned. Before last season began, there were legitimate questions about whether Flacco was steady enough to be a championship-caliber quarterback. Those doubts ended the second he hoisted the Lombardi trophy with his teammates in New Orleans.
Ryan needs to have a moment like that. He has run out of excuses. The Falcons have so much firepower that their defense doesn't have to be extraordinary. They should be scoring at will when at their best, and Ryan should frighten teams the way Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have done for years.
Gonzalez surely has one more high-level season in him -- he never has shown the wear and tear that should come with 17 years in the league. Jackson also is a sizable upgrade at running back. He's a bruiser in the same mold as Turner, but he has been far sturdier. At 29, he has logged more carries than his predecessor (2,395 career attempts to 1,639) without losing his effectiveness, and he's a better receiver (Jackson has 407 career receptions; Turner had 70). The Falcons will love that added versatility in the backfield.
All Ryan has to do is prove he can elevate his game to another level. That might sound unfair for a quarterback coming off his best year, but that's just how it works in the NFL these days. The younger generation deserves some blame for the added pressure Ryan now faces. Rising stars such as Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck all raised the bar on what we can expect from less-experienced franchise quarterbacks.
Their rapid success tells us that people no longer will be patient with Ryan's maturation. If those younger peers can move so easily into the NFL and establish themselves as big-time players, he no longer has the excuse that it takes time for such QBs to find their way. Neither Wilson nor Kaepernick needed more than a season to win his first playoff game; Griffin and Luck led their teams to surprising postseason bids. Although Ryan reached the playoffs his rookie year, he never looked as impressive as this current crop did in those early days.
Now things are different. Ryan has the numbers to prove he can be an elite quarterback, and he most certainly has the talent around him. The Falcons have gone to great lengths to ensure his success, whether it was making a risky draft-day trade for Jones in 2011 or reportedly giving Gonzalez the Brett Favre treatment (more money, less training camp). Teams don't do these things if they're merely building for the future. They do them because the window to win a championship is as open as it has ever been.
Ryan certainly is smart enough to recognize this. The next step is for him to do something about it. Some of his contemporaries (Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning) have capitalized on their chances to win championships, but others (notably San Diego's Philip Rivers) have watched their best opportunities fade with eroding rosters. Ryan must realize that he might never again have it as good as he will this season. And if his team doesn't reach the Super Bowl, he might never have it as bad.