Time running out for Matt Ryan to prove he can make Falcons contenders again

Whether the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan remains one of the NFL's top quarterback depends on who you ask.

When 46 ESPN NFL experts predicted the Top 100 players coming into the season, they ranked Ryan 37th among all players and ninth among quarterbacks -- although analyst Matt Bowen labeled Ryan overrated in relation to the list.

"Ryan is going to throw with volume in the Atlanta offense, which leads to productive numbers," Bowen explained, "however, with declining arm strength and mobility, I think Ryan is ranked a little too high on this list."

Ask coaches such as Pete Carroll of the Seahawks or Mike McCarthy of the Cowboys and they'll tell you Ryan's a top-tier talent, without question.

"I'm a fan of Matt's," McCarthy said. "I think anytime a quarterback has system changes and keeps playing at a high level speaks volumes. ... He has the ability to make all the plays, make all the throws, and plays with great anticipation and ball placement. Obviously a veteran, established quarterback playing at a high level with excellent weapons."

The creators of the Madden video game have mixed signals with Ryan's overall rating at 87 -- two points lower than last season -- but his rank among quarterbacks is one spot higher at No. 7.

"I know what I'm capable of doing and what my ability is," Ryan said. "... I think the longer I've played, the more I've learned that my Madden rating doesn't really affect what I do on the field. That's kind of how I sleep at night."

Neither Ryan nor the Falcons should rest easy these days. They're off to an 0-3 start heading into a Monday Night Football road matchup with Aaron Rodgers and the 3-0 Packers (8:50 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Packers are coached by Matt LaFleur, who was to be Ryan's quarterbacks coach and is still Ryan's friend. The hobbled Falcons, hit hard by the injury bug, are trying to avoid starting 0-4 for the first time since 1999 while attempting to save coach Dan Quinn's job in the process.

This could be a pivotal juncture for 35-year-old Ryan. He certainly would silence doubters by rallying his team to an improbable road win at Lambeau Field and by pushing the Falcons back into the playoff picture over the coming weeks, particularly in a division that features all-time greats Tom Brady and Drew Brees. If the Falcons continue this free fall, questions will emerge about whether Ryan will ever win a title and help the Falcons get over that lingering hangover after Super Bowl LI, when they blew a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots.

What's happened since the Super Bowl

How soon folks forget Ryan was the league MVP in 2016, when he worked under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and led the Falcons to a league-best 33.8 points per game. The road to the Super Bowl that season included a 392-yard, four-touchdown effort in which Ryan completed 71.1% of his passes in a 44-21 NFC championship victory over Rodgers and the Packers.

However, the Falcons are 24-27 since the Super Bowl run as Steve Sarkisian and Dirk Koetter succeeded Shanahan and had the unenviable task of trying to mirror Shanahan's success and system. This is Ryan's second year with Koetter and Koetter's second stint with the Falcons, so most anticipated a smoother transition. Then again, that was the expectation for the Falcons as a whole after last year's 6-2 finish after a 1-7 start.

Although defensive lapses, special-teams blunders and offensive inefficiency at inopportune times can all be blamed for this year's failures, the Falcons aren't pointing fingers. Ryan insisted the only way to move forward collectively was to look in the mirror, individually.

Sure, he entered Week 4 ranked highly in categories such as passing yards (ranks third with 961), first downs (fourth with 51) and passing touchdowns (tied for fifth with seven), but Ryan knows he has missed a few throws that could have changed the complexion of the first three games. He is 3-of-12 for 134 yards and one interception on throws of 25 or more air yards this season. (For comparison, Tom Brady is 10-of-16 for 361 yards with one TD and no picks on such throws through four games.) And Ryan was 3-of-11 for 31 yards with an interception -- including seven consecutive incompletions -- in the fourth quarter of last week's 30-26 loss to the Bears.

"For me personally, it's about giving our guys chances to make plays on balls," Ryan said. "I think I've done it pretty good through the start, but it can always be better. That's the thing I'm always striving for: to go through a game with excellent decision-making, making sure I'm going to the right spots with the ball, and ultimately giving our guys a chance. I think I can do that better for us as we move forward."

No matter how outsiders critique his play, Ryan has full support from the organization.

"There's always going to be people who take their shots and are critical because there isn't a Super Bowl attached to him, as of yet," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Matt is a top-tier quarterback. We all know that. The [outside criticism] is unfortunate, but that's not where he spends his time, worrying about how he's rated. Nor do we.

"We believe that he can take us to a championship."

Dissecting Ryan's play

ESPN's Dan Orlovsky was one of those analysts who left Ryan off his list of top 10 quarterbacks. It wasn't out of disrespect for Ryan's game, however.

Coming into the season, Orlovsky had serious concerns about how Ryan would perform behind what appeared to be a shaky offensive line. He also wondered what type of production Ryan would get from newcomer Hayden Hurst at tight end, and what type of assistance Ryan would receive from Todd Gurley and the running game.

Orlovsky never doubted Ryan's ability.

"He's still as good as there is in the NFL as just a natural thrower of the football," Orlovsky said. "There are some guys that are up there that are very unnatural. I think he throws as wide receiver-friendly of a ball as we have in the NFL. ... I would say he moves better in the pocket now than he did when he was young. I honestly believe that.

"Everything that you want your quarterback to do throwing-wise, he still does at a really, really big time, elite level."

One AFC coach who has studied Ryan closely for years agreed about his ability to make all the throws. But that same coach pointed to one flaw: "He lacks deep ball strength if not thrown quickly and in rhythm."

Ryan continues to search for ways to fine-tune his game. Falcons quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp said one of the primary areas of emphasis for Ryan entering the season was throwing deep crossing routes in a place where receivers such as Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley could catch them in stride and pick up more yards after the catch.

"We do so much play pass, the one thing he really wanted to improve upon is keeping those receivers from slowing down by hitting a certain marker on the field so they could get those extra yards," Knapp said. "He really took it to heart, and I've seen it in practice. He's been a lot more consistent getting that ball out in front."

Knapp mentioned how Ryan has helped preserve his arm by limiting his pre-practice and pregame throws in warm-ups. Ryan instead goes through a routine he picked up on while working with former pitchers Tom House and Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB training in Los Angeles. It includes working with small weighted balls rather than throwing actual footballs and doing the now infamous "Dak Dance" during warm-ups.

"His routine to strengthen his shoulder and his torso without having to throw the ball a lot, no doubt in my mind it probably will help extend his career," Knapp said. "I know, in a daily practice deal, he throws probably the least amount of throws I've had a quarterback make to warm up."

Like Knapp, offensive coordinator Koetter sees a desire in Ryan to improve on the smallest details of his game. And yes, it irks Koetter when critics bash his quarterback, even if Koetter doesn't want to admit it. He's sees a player who was the second-fastest in NFL history to 50,000 passing yards. Ryan, with a 109-83 career record (4-6 in playoffs) currently sits ninth on the all-time passing list with 52,147 yards.

"My opinion is his numbers speak for themself," Koetter said. "He's been an MVP. He's been in a Super Bowl. His numbers are pretty impressive."

Koetter pointed to one throw from last season that showed why Ryan remains a top-tier quarterback. It was during the Falcons' shocking 26-9 road win over the rival Saints when Ryan launched an 8-yard fastball to tight end Austin Hooper for a touchdown with two defenders hovering.

"He throws it the only place he could throw it to Hooper, who makes a really nice catch," Koetter recalled. "Those are the kinds of throws in the red zone ... that helped us get off to a good start. And that's one of the plays that helped jump-start the second half of the year."

Life after Ryan?

There were rumblings of an Aaron Rodgers/Jordan Love situation developing in Atlanta. The Packers shocked the NFL world by taking Love in the first round with Rodgers, 36, still playing at a high level.

Reports surfaced before the NFL draft about the Falcons and Dimitroff being interested in the top quarterback prospects. But nothing ever materialized in Atlanta in the end.

The Falcons, who selected cornerback A.J. Terrell with the No. 16 pick, met with top pick Joe Burrow (Bengals) and No. 5 pick Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins) during the NFL combine. Those meetings raised questions within the organization about why those quarterback interviews were even necessary.

Dimitroff said it was due diligence, not disrespect toward Ryan.

"We were being mindful of making sure that we had our t's crossed and our i's dotted in regard to the next wave of quarterbacks -- the next wave of top quarterbacks in this league," Dimitroff said when asked about meeting with Burrow and Tua. "And we'll continue to do that moving forward. We've always been mindful of it. But obviously, as times goes on, you have to be even that much more mindful.

"Again, we're really happy with where Matt is. Matt takes care of his body so well. And we really believe that Matt is at the top of his game, and he'll continue to be at the top of his game for a while. ... That said, of course, we have to make sure that we are prepared for the future."

Dimitroff said when drafting a top quarterback, the first eight to 10 years is focused on the evolution of that quarterback. The Falcons drafted Ryan at No. 3 in 2008, so he's now in the midst of his 13th season. A look toward the future is inevitable at this point, although no one is sure who will be coaching the Falcons next season.

The only quarterback the Falcons have drafted since Ryan was Sean Renfree in the seventh round of 2013. They re-signed 2004 third-round draft pick, Matt Schaub, to be Ryan's backup the past five seasons. They evaluated free-agent backup options during the offseason but decided to let youngsters Kurt Benkert and Danny Etling battle Schaub, with Benkert being able to stick on the practice squad.

Ryan has three years and $74.75 million remaining on a contract that runs through 2023. He is due to make $20.5 million this season, then will carry a cap number of $40,912,500 in 2021 after his contract was restructured to create cap space for this season.

Ryan told ESPN last year he thinks he can play into his 40s, following in the footsteps of Brady (43) and Brees (41). At the same time, he knows he can't play forever.

When asked about the organization planning for the future at the position, Ryan shrugged it off.

"I mean, to be honest with you, I don't worry about it too much," he said. "My focus has always been on taking care of my business and doing the best that I can. I feel like I'm in a really good spot in my career. I feel like I'm playing at a high level. So, I worry about that. I worry about what I can control and taking care of my business.

"I haven't had to deal with [the Rodgers-Love situation] yet in my career. Hopefully, I can continue to play at this level for a long time and be here for a long time, but no one knows what the future holds. So, I take it one year at a time and just do the best I can."