By Shawn Lealos
When the Atlanta Falcons drafted Matt Ryan with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, they hoped he would be their savior after losing Michael Vick. While he started out on fire, things took a while to finally reach the point they did in 2016, when Ryan finally led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl. With the journey to the big game finally reached, it is now time to see if Ryan can take the last step and win it all for his team. Here is a look at the blossoming legacy of Matt Ryan heading into Super Bowl 51.
A Star as a Rookie
Matt Ryan was a star in college, playing for Boston College for four seasons and watching none other than this weekend’s opposing quarterback, Tom Brady, as he played close by. When Ryan made it to the NFL, the Falcons were desperately looking for a new quarterback. They made him the fourth overall draft pick in 2008 and paid him a huge contract, starting him from the first game of the season.
In his rookie season, Ryan threw for 3,440 yards with 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. That season, both Ryan and Joe Flacco led their respective teams to the playoffs, the first rookie quarterbacks to ever reach this achievement. Ryan won the NFL Rookie of the Year award, but lost in the playoffs to Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals.
13-Win NFL Season
Although he missed the playoffs in his second season—despite finishing with a winning record—Matt Ryan had the Atlanta Falcons back in the playoffs in his third season after winning an NFC-best 13 wins. That made the Falcons the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and they looked strong. The 13 wins helped Ryan set an Atlanta Falcons team record, and he also set franchise records in attempts (571) as well as completions (357). He threw 28 touchdowns and had a low nine interceptions.
However, the Falcons once again couldn’t win in the playoffs and lost to the Green Bay Packers in their first playoff game that postseason. In 2011, Ryan threw for 4,177 yards with 29 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and made it back to the playoffs, only to lose to the New York Giants in the wild-card game. Ryan was developing a reputation as someone who couldn’t win in the playoffs.
First Playoff Win
Finally, in 2012, Ryan won his first playoff football game. He opened up the season hot, leading the Falcons to a franchise-best eight wins to start the season. He broke his own records with 422 completions for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns, and also topped his career best in completion percentage at 68.6. The Falcons got a first round bye again and this time took advantage of it by beating the Seattle Seahawks. However, Atlanta’s season ended when they lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship after Ryan sprained the AC joint in his shoulder.
A Big Contract Leads to a Big Slump
With his first playoff win, the Atlanta Falcons knew they had a winner in Matt Ryan and rewarded him with a $103.75 million contract in 2013. That season, Atlanta only won four games and things looked bleak. In 2014, Atlanta only won six games, despite Matt Ryan playing strong, and the Falcons fired head coach Mike Smith. In 2015, Atlanta only won eight games and missed the playoffs for the third year in a row.
An MVP Performance Leading to the Super Bowl
Matt Ryan finally turned things back around in 2016. While some have called for Tom Brady to win the NFL MVP, it is Matt Ryan who deserves it. Ryan led the NFL in passer rating with 117.1 and threw for a career-high 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns with a career-low seven interceptions. Only the Dallas Cowboys had a better record in the NFC than Atlanta.
When the playoffs came, Ryan proved he had forgotten – or learned from – the past and he dominated in the playoffs. Atlanta beat up the Seattle Seahawks, 36-20, and then blew out the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, to make the Super Bowl. Ryan had an astonishing 132.5 passer rating with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the two games and he now has Atlanta on the brink of winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history.