FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The image was so often the same this season. Matt Ryan dropped back to pass and seemingly a second later, he’d have to be on the move.
The Atlanta Falcons quarterback, time and time again, would have to make decisions while watching his pocket collapse.
A clean pocket? Rare. A day without being tossed to the ground at least a handful of times? Unlikely. And yet, Ryan managed to survive, even if it didn’t always look pretty doing so.
He grasped first-year Falcons head coach Arthur Smith’s offense, and when he wasn’t scrambling, he showed proficiency in it. It’s why it’s reasonable to think Ryan should be Atlanta’s quarterback next fall.
Will he be? That’s still a question.
When Smith was asked about Ryan’s status multiple times last week, he said they’ll always be evaluating the roster, and he’s not going to “sit there and back yourself into a corner and make some grand statement that we’ll never, ever do this or that.”
Don’t take that as moving on from Ryan is anywhere near a certainty. If anything, that’s a smart business tactic in case things do change – and in the NFL, things can shift.
Could the Falcons get a Godfather-type offer that might make them change their minds? Sure, it’s possible. Might the Falcons fall so in love with a quarterback prospect this year that it alters their plans? Again, that's possible, but this isn’t a strong draft class for quarterbacks, especially if you’re counting on one to start right away.
Barring those two scenarios, it would seem likely the Falcons stick with Ryan. Unlike other veteran quarterbacks in recent years who have either asked for trades or floated the idea of moving on from their long-time team, Ryan has been resolute in his desire to stay with the Falcons.
“I want to be here, and I believe in this team and our coaching staff, I think, did a great job,” Ryan said. “I really feel fortunate to have been here as long as I have. I am optimistic, I really am, and I want to be here and I feel good about this group of guys, this coaching staff, everybody and the direction that it’s going.”
He holds this optimism despite being sacked the sixth-most in the NFL last season – although Ryan was No. 14 in sack percentage – and being sacked 40 or more times for the fourth straight season. He said this despite throwing for his fewest yards since 2010 (3,968) and tying the second-lowest touchdown output of his career (20).
He had his highest completion percentage (67) since 2018, and in terms of how much he threw the ball, his 560 attempts were on-par with how much he threw in two of his best seasons -- 2016 (534) and 2017 (529).
But this is more than about the numbers. It’s about consistency.
Ryan did a little bit less with a lot less to work with on the field. His No. 1 receiver, Calvin Ridley, didn’t play for most of the season. His No. 2 receiver, Russell Gage, was injured for most of the first month and didn’t look fully healthy until the last two months. His best pass-catcher was a rookie tight end, Kyle Pitts, and Atlanta had the second-fewest rushing yards (1,451) and third-fewest yards per carry (3.7) in the league.
So it’s not like he had a ton to work with, unlike previous years where his offenses were littered with first-round picks and Pro Bowlers.
“From the outside looking in, he's always had a lot invested in the perimeter,” Smith said. “There has been a lot of good skill players on the outside the first part of his career, everything.
“This is what he proved is he can win, and we did it with a lot of different guys contributing. And so that says a lot about him.”
There is the issue of his contract, which would seem to be untenable on its face, with the Falcons again having salary cap constraints and Ryan having a cap hit just under $48.7 million for next season. General manager Terry Fontenot wouldn’t answer whether the Falcons would need to rework Ryan’s deal, saying he wouldn’t speculate on contracts.
But the reality for Atlanta is it probably would have to do something to make it work with Ryan, who would have the largest cap hit of any quarterback in the league next year.
Whether that’s adding a voidable year to spread out his cap hit or an extension or another type of restructure would remain to be seen. But that’s part of what Fontenot will have to look at if Atlanta keeps Ryan – unless it moves on from other players and lets Ryan’s contract sit as the one massive one left.
But however the Falcons do it, they should find a way to stick with Ryan for at least 2022.
In the world of NFL quarterbacks, what you know you have is often times better than the alternative. Ryan is still playing at a level that isn’t necessarily at the top of the NFL but at least is in the middle of the league. Which, considering what Atlanta’s offense looked like for stretches this season -- not always Ryan’s fault -- isn’t bad.
Moving on from Ryan would take a leap of faith the Falcons will immediately find the next star quarterback, which is far from a guarantee. The quarterback purgatory NFL teams have gone through in recent years, from the Chicago Bears to the Cleveland Browns to the New York Jets, can become ugly.
Atlanta has been fortunate. Between Ryan and Michael Vick and arguably Chris Chandler and Chris Miller before that, the Falcons have largely had a three-decade run of, at minimum, competent quarterback play with infrequent dips.
But every time you move on from a quarterback, there’s a chance that goes away. And it’s a chance Atlanta shouldn’t be ready to take yet -- not with the amount of building the franchise needs to do in many others parts of the roster.