Commentary

Matt Ryan knows the next step

Making the playoffs is no longer enough -- the Falcons must advance

Originally Published: June 8, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

It is there, and Matt Ryan knows it: that monster bagel on an otherwise impressive four-year résumé he has built, from Day One of his rookie year, in Atlanta. Nothing can hide it, not the 43-19 regular-season record or the 60.9 career completion percentage or the 95 career touchdowns, with half as many interceptions.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith and Matt Ryan
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesMike Smith's confidence in Matt Ryan has never wavered.
Zero playoff wins.

Zero.

Zilch.

Three chances, three losses, no wins. Cliff Lee can't buy a regular-season win for Ryan's beloved Philadelphia Phillies this season. Ryan can't buy one for the Falcons in the postseason.

Ryan owns it but does not dwell on it. He accepts it but does not let past high-profile failures consume him. He is on Twitter. He sees the people flexing their Internet muscles. Ryan knows fans have doubts.

But he also knows this: That zero isn't going to be there forever, not if he can help it. It isn't going to define his career, just as Peyton Manning's 0-4 playoff start certainly hasn't defined his. Manning won a Super Bowl. Ryan is trying to do the same.

The Falcons think he can.

"The arrow, I still believe, for our football team and especially for Matt Ryan, is pointing up," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

Smith, of course, is heavily invested in Ryan, 27. In his first season with the Falcons in 2008, Smith drafted Ryan third overall out of Boston College. He had a plan to rebuild a franchise that had been rocked first by a quarterback's crime and then by a coach's abrupt departure.

In Year One and Year Two, the plan was to become a relevant football team, which would mean, as Smith explained it, "being part of the conversation in December and January." From there, become big-time players in the NFL's second season: the playoffs.

Ryan played solidly out of the gate, and the Falcons were able to achieve their initial goals. They won 11 games in Ryan's rookie year and made the playoffs -- ahead of schedule -- but lost to Arizona on the road.

They took a step back in 2009, but in 2010 won the NFC West with a 13-3 record that gave them a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs -- again, ahead of schedule. Then a hot Green Bay team rolled into town and routed them 48-21. That game changed when Ryan threw an interception that Tramon Williams returned for a touchdown at the end of the first half.

Last season, the Falcons were wildly inconsistent in all three phases of the game. Smith made some risky calls that cost them, and they played their worst game of the year when it mattered most, on the road in the playoffs against the Giants. The offense didn't score a point.

It is true that Ryan has not played particularly well in any of the playoff losses. He has thrown three postseason touchdowns and four interceptions, and he has not thrown for more than 200 yards. Although the loss to the Giants certainly wasn't solely Ryan's fault, he didn't pull his team out of the morass, either. The Falcons had two fourth-and-1 failures, were 4-of-17 on third down and gained only 247 total yards. Ryan was 24-of-41 for 199 yards, a miniscule average of 4.8 yards per pass play.

"That game was a microcosm of our season, magnified by it being the postseason," Smith said. "It was probably one of the worst games of our season."

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/David GoldmanMatt Ryan focuses on improving rather than dwelling on his winless playoff record.
"The thing I learned from that game is you have to finish," Ryan told me. "You have to finish drives. You have to finish series and quarters and games. That specific game, the third-down opportunities on the plus side of the 50 and the two four-down situations in the red zone, we didn't convert. Those kinds of plays we have to convert."

There's more to it. The Falcons need to be consistent, week in and week out, on both sides of the ball. They have the offensive weapons in place -- a solid offensive line, reliable running back, speedy receivers and a sure-handed veteran tight end -- and during the offseason they added ball-hawking Asante Samuel to their secondary. Samuel, who has played against Ryan four times, has told the quarterback what he thinks about his game, and how he can be harder to defend.

Ryan also has gone back to a practice he undertook two seasons ago: watching tape of his peers. Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady. Drew Brees. He has studied them intently. He admires Rodgers' deadly back shoulder fade throw, and Brady's eye manipulation, and Brees' utter confidence to put the ball where only his teammate can reach it no matter the coverage.

Although he wouldn't necessarily call himself "cut up," Ryan also has retooled his body, gaining a few pounds while shedding a few percentage points of body fat. The idea is to hold up better down the stretch of the season, and, again, in the playoffs.

Smith has no doubt that Ryan will. The arrow is pointing up, he said, because Ryan "continues to improve in the areas elite quarterbacks have to," most important his decision-making and accuracy.

But both men know it is one thing to do it in the regular season and quite another to do it in the postseason. The bar has been set. The bagel must go.

"It's something I don't think about all that often," Ryan said of his playoff record. "My thought process is constantly to improve, be better during the regular season, be better during the postseason and be a better football player. Beyond that, if you worry about too many outside things, like what other people are saying, it can consume you, and you can't let that happen."

Ryan won't. He also won't have to live with the bagel much longer.