The Two Sides Of Matt Ryan

Is Matt Ryan a disappointing QB? Or a good QB on a disappointing team? The answer, maddeningly enough, is both. And the reality is that the Atlanta Falcons will either succeed or fail based on which quarterback plays on Sunday. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is coming up on a crossroads early in his career.

When Matt Ryan is good, he is very, very good.

Ryan tossed a career-high 28 touchdown passes last season. With 14 touchdown passes in nine games, he’s on pace to throw for 26 in 2011. However, he threw just nine interceptions last year and has 10 already this season.

Ryan has thrown at least one touchdown pass in a career-best 15 straight games, and has found a receiver in the end zone in 23 of his last 24 games.  And in this season’s week 2 win over the Eagles, Ryan set a career-high with four touchdown passes. It was also the seventh time he has thrown for at least three scores.

The Falcons are 21-5 since 2008 when Ryan throws multiple touchdown passes, and are 37-12 when he finds a man in the end zone at least once. His 85 touchdowns since 2008 rank fourth in the NFC and ninth overall.

Then there is the Elway factor.

Ryan has led the Falcons on 15 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his first four seasons. He had a chance to post his 16th such drive last week against the Saints, but the potential game-winning drive stalled at the 29-yard line after head coach Mike Smith elected to go for it on a fourth-and-inches and the Falcons were stuffed.

After guiding the Falcons to the playoffs in two of his first three years, the team was considered a Super Bowl contender in his fourth season.  But the Falcons are 7-5 and will have to close out the season with a winning flurry to return to the playoffs and defend their NFC South title.

If the Falcons are going to make a surge, they’ll need Ryan to revert to his 2010 form.

And when Ryan is bad, he is …

When he is bad, as the four-year veteran was in Sunday’s 17-10 loss at Houston, the Falcons simply aren’t the same team. And they lose bad games, like on Sunday, when they were facing a rookie quarterback making his first regular-season start in the league.

T.J. Yates outplayed Ryan – predictably leaning heavily on the Texans’ powerful running game and top-ranked defense – and Ryan appeared tentative and uncertain almost from the opening snap. Stealing away to watch snippets of the game on a monitor in the Heinz Field press box, especially after the Pittsburgh Steelers had cruised well ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals in a 35-7 beat-down, it was hard to tell which of the quarterbacks was making his first start and who was making his 58th.

Certainly, wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones didn’t help the cause with dropped passes, and didn’t bail out the quarterback with anything resembling a difficult catch. And the Atlanta running backs, who managed just 60 yards kept running into a Houston front that was designed to slow tailback Michael Turner, who registered only 44 yards.

And as he has demonstrated over his tenure in the league, Ryan is a suspect deep thrower. On this day, his passes of all lengths were somewhat dubious. Ryan completed 20-of-46 attempts for 267 yards. His two interceptions marked just the 15th time in 58 starts that Ryan threw multiple picks in a game. But his quarterback rating, 52.7, was the third-lowest of his career. The only times it was lower: In the second game of his rookie season, when he posted a microscopic rating of 29.6 at Tampa Bay. And a Nov. 2, 2009 game at New Orleans, the only other time when Ryan threw more than two interceptions in a game.

Indeed, while the Texans didn’t sack Ryan, they hit him 10 times, and he appeared to be uncomfortable in the pocket from the outset. The Texans rank second in the NFL in sacks (35) and, according to unofficial statistics, in hits on quarterbacks, and they swarmed around Ryan like bees to honey.

And now the Falcons at 7-5 trail the New Orleans Saints by two games in the NFC South with only four contests remaining. Atlanta figures to face rookie quarterbacks in their next two games, before a rematch with the Saints and nemesis Drew Brees the day after Christmas, and they may need a run to qualify for the postseason as a wild card. And they figure to need better play from Ryan, as well, down the stretch.

In his four seasons, Smith has constructed a well-balanced team, one that is not reliant on one person or component to win regularly. But the truth is, that when Ryan is off his game, the Falcons tend to follow suit. Consider: The Falcons are 32-11 (.744) in games in which Ryan doesn’t throw multiple interceptions. They are just 8-7 (.533) when he does.

With four games left on the schedule, Ryan has four multiple-interception outings in 2011, one shy of his most, five in 2009. And his 12 pickoffs are just two short of the career-worst 14 he tossed in ’09.

The time to turn it on is now.  Starting with Ryan himself.