The quarterback on the fringe left FedEx Field through a corridor after his most recent win, carrying two bags. In his left hand was a designer duffel; in the other a college-boy knapsack. There was the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan, walking between different looks, different statements.
Ryan is youth and experience, potential and accomplishments, NFL youngster and, at age 27, his team’s leader. He is a man divided between many things, and the most interesting is whether Ryan is an elite quarterback or simply a very good one.
Atlanta is 5-0, on paper the NFC’s best team, and Ryan is a major reason. He has 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, and he’s in the top five in most of the NFL’s major passing categories.
Since being selected No. 3 overall in the 2008 draft, Ryan has led the Falcons to a 43-21 regular season record. But he’s also 0-3 in the playoffs and hasn’t yet sniffed a conference championship or Super Bowl. Ryan has the talent, but he lacks the bona fides of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees.
But is Ryan finally breaking through in his fifth season? Is he now one of the NFL’s elite passers?
“I’ve been getting that question about Matt since I got here,” said Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, who joined the Falcons in 2009. “It was never a matter of ‘if’ for him; it was a matter of when. When was he going to turn that corner and be [in] that upper-echelon of quarterbacks?”
Ryan arrived in the league as a prospect seemingly ready for NFL stardom. He was a standout at Boston College, and he had the look, arm strength and accuracy of a quarterback who could change the fortunes of an NFL team in disrepair. Atlanta had been 4-12 in 2007, still smoldering in the ruins of Michael Vick’s dogfighting scandal. So two first-year decision-makers with the Falcons, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and Coach Mike Smith, selected Ryan and staked their futures on the 6-foot-5 prospect, immediately installing him as the Falcons’ starter.
His physical tools were on display right away as he led his team to 11 wins as a rookie, and he held up mentally, too.
“Matt’s a strong-willed guy,” Smith said last week. “He has been since he got here.”
He kept improving, but other teams’ quarterbacks kept winning championships. Several of Ryan’s teammates suggested it takes only consistent wins in the regular season to emerge into that top tier. Others added that a quarterback who gives his team a chance to compete for a title should be seen as one of the best.
But Rodgers wasn’t seen as an elite passer until he won the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. The New York Giants’ Eli Manning was viewed as an inconsistent player and questionable leader until winning one championship after the ’07 season and another this past February.
Roddy White, the Falcons’ best wide receiver, admitted that Ryan might not join that group until he at least wins in the postseason.
“I just think he’s got a newfound focus,” said White, who has 31 catches and three touchdowns in five games. “He wants to win a playoff game. The team wants to win a playoff game.”
One thing that seems unquestioned about Ryan is his leadership. When the Falcons traded a mountain of draft picks last year — five selections in the 2011 and ’12 drafts — to move up 21 spots and take wide receiver Julio Jones, Ryan greeted the rookie during the NFL lockout to discuss team etiquette and how to approach the professional game. A year later, Jones is one of Ryan’s favorite targets; he is tied for third in the NFL with four touchdown catches.
“He kind of took me under his wing early on,” Jones said. “I went over there and he was showing me the playbook, trying to get a step ahead.”
Now in his fifth season, and the next-to-last one of his rookie contract, the stakes have been lifted for Ryan. His team has often looked dominant, and even when it hasn’t, such as last Sunday’s win against the Washington Redskins, Ryan and his team adjusted.
“Playing well and winning,” Ryan said when asked what makes a quarterback elite. “That is what it comes down to. I think that is how everybody is judged.”
For now, though, the question lingers — and Ryan remains stuck in between. There is something, White said, that would answer it definitively.
“Win the Super Bowl,” the wideout said, “and there won’t be no questions. None.”