- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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But as the 2013 season wore on and the Falcons fell deeper down the standings, it was fair to wonder if preserving the health of their $100-million investment crossed the minds of the Falcons’ decision-makers. Yet head coach Mike Smith insisted such a move wasn’t an option regardless of record.
During this week’s season-ending news conference, general manager Thomas Dimitroff was asked if he was concerned about Ryan’s health.
"Matt’s obviously one of the toughest guys, if not the toughest guys on our football team, with what he has to deal with both mentally and physically [last] year unfortunately,’’ Dimitroff explained. "You’re always concerned about the health of your marquee-type players. And yet, I really wasn’t in a spot where I thought about that as much. I thought about it, but I really felt that we were doing the right thing. And Matt has an uncanny ability to escape and get out of the way in his own way within the pocket.’’
Maybe Ryan did sidestep pressure on occasion, but he was manhandled for most of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan led the league with 204 dropbacks while pressured -- sacked, forced to scramble, hit while throwing, or put under duress – with the next closest quarterback being Seattle’s Russell Wilson with 184. The league average was 122.
Ryan also led the league with 702 dropbacks, so he obviously had more opportunities to get hit. He was sacked a career-high 44 times.
The season finale against Carolina, when Ryan got sacked nine times and hit 14 times total, provided yet another example of why the Falcons should have considered pulling Ryan at season’s end.
"Anytime you’re thinking about your quarterback hurt and getting hit, it crosses your mind,’’ Dimitroff said. "But it wasn’t to a point to me ever suggesting to [Coach Smith], from a general manager’s standpoint, that I think we need to keep him off the field. Matt’s a wildly competitive guy and, again, very, very tough. That would have been sacrilegious to suggest to him that he shouldn’t be on the field because of that.’’
The Falcons obviously need to upgrade the offensive line via free agency or through the draft, as they currently hold the No. 6 overall pick. The Chicago Bears provided an example of the importance of revamping the offensive line when they went out a signed former Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod to a five-year, $40 million contract then drafted guard Kyle Long in the first round.
Of course, the Falcons also could help Ryan's cause by establishing more of a running game next season, so he doesn't have to drop back so many times.
Wide receiver Roddy White was the only Falcon really willing to come out and say his quarterback desperately needs more help.
"Next year, that's got to be something that we improve: We've got to keep our quarterback clean because he's not going to make it," White told ESPN.com. "You keep taking hits and hits and you're not going to make it. We're going to have to find ways to get him protected, keep him upright so he can do what he do and that's make throws and win football games."