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Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan deserved a better send-off, but these things often get messy

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How Matt Ryan's trade to the Colts came about (2:05)

Jeremy Fowler details how the Colts struck a deal to land Matt Ryan in exchange for a third-round pick. (2:05)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Sometimes NFL divorces can take years. Not this one. Not close. It happened, seemingly, in an instant. Whether drawn out or instantaneous, they rarely are ever pretty or fair.

For quarterback Matt Ryan, how the Atlanta Falcons handled things over the past month wasn't either. What could have been an honorable send-off turned into one full of speculation and waiting.

The Falcons, for a week, courted now-Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. In chasing Watson, Atlanta made clear the succession plan that owner Arthur Blank said the team had been investigating for years was potentially getting speeded up.

On Monday, it was accelerated further as Ryan was traded to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a third-round pick. It was the end of an era and sent the Falcons into an unknown future. Two weeks ago, this seemed an unlikely ending. Then the Falcons became one of four teams chasing Watson and everything became public and a little messy and complicated.

Moving on from Ryan signals an Atlanta rebuild as the team adds quarterback to its list of needs and has to search for a replacement, both in the short term and long term. Four straight losing seasons -- the Falcons have not been over .500 at any point since the 2017 season concluded with a playoff bid -- put Atlanta in this position. Something needed to change. The Falcons needed to start to figure out their future. The public push for Watson might have just jump-started the timeline.

Endings are rarely storybook, whether you're Joe Namath or Joe Montana or, in the Falcons' world, Steve Bartkowski. For every Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford, who get to have a say in their own exit from the franchise they've spent a decade leading, more often it's a situation where at least one side leaves feeling uncomfortable about the whole deal.

Remember, Ryan -- the last time he spoke publicly -- talked about how optimistic he was about the organization and how much he wanted to remain a part of it.

"I want to be here and I believe in this team, and our coaching staff, I think, did a great job," Ryan said in January. "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. I really think that we're going to make improvements this offseason and continue to grow as a team and be better than we were this year."

Ryan's trade comes less than three months after his very public declaration.

Which is a shame. Matt Ryan did nothing to deserve this besides doing what we all do: get older, day by day, through no control of our own. Ryan remains a good NFL quarterback, even if not in his MVP prime. He remains a player who can win and someone whom a team can count on.

A player who will be available every Sunday -- he has missed one game over the past decade -- and will give essentially the same performance over and over and over again.

Remembering Ryan in Atlanta will be not quite as straightforward as it might seem, though. His legacy should be as one of the best players in franchise history and -- sorry, Michael Vick -- the best quarterback in franchise history.

But it's also one that will also be tied to the biggest game and biggest failing of his career: Atlanta's collapse in Super Bowl LI after having a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots, a meme still existing a half-decade later. The franchise that lost its way since.

Not much of that can be pinned on Ryan. He played well that day -- completed 17 of 23 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns -- and it wasn't his fault the coaching staff made the decisions that led to the collapse.

Which is antithetical to how Ryan's career had been. One of reliability and consistency, of 10 straight 4,000-plus yard seasons, 13 seasons of 20 or more touchdowns and completing at least 64% of his passes in each of the last 10 seasons.

Ryan was always professional and appeared to do and say the right thing. He took blame and hardly ever -- if ever -- doled it out.

He was the epitome of consistency for Atlanta from the first pass he threw -- a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins -- to his last. He never made an issue about the lack of protection he had the past four years, even if it came at his own personal safety and the success of the team around him.

Ryan didn't complain last year about a lack of options when Julio Jones was traded and then Calvin Ridley missed three-quarters of the season. Instead, he worked with what he could in a new offense the best he could and still threw for almost 4,000 yards with an offense having far fewer options than any team he has played with in the past.

But what Ryan meant to the Falcons was more than anything strictly in completions and touchdowns and interceptions.

In the wake of the Vick dogfighting scandal, Ryan became a face of the franchise. It was an unenviable position for a rookie quarterback to be in, replacing a star player who remains one of the more popular (and polarizing) figures in Atlanta.

Ryan was not from Atlanta and not from the South. He's a Philly and Boston guy who could have accepted this was his job and just rolled with it. Instead, he embraced Atlanta almost as if he had lived there his entire life.

He was involved in the community with his wife, Sarah. They started a foundation in 2020 called ATL: Advance The Lives, to attempt to bring social changes to Atlanta. Still in its infancy as a program, it raised more than $1.3 million through a GoFundMe and in the past few months has started to work with Atlanta-area organizations.

Which is why so much of what has transpired is surprising. That Atlanta would eventually move on from Ryan was known -- the team had talked about a succession plan, but it never seemed imminent until less than a week ago.

It has led to a breakup in the days after the Falcons lost their bid for Watson. Ending it like this, with a player who should one day be in your Ring of Honor, is a poor way to go about things and just bad business.