Don't Blame Matt Ryan for the Falcons' Loss in Super Bowl LI

Whenever a team blows a big lead as the Atlanta Falcons did in Super Bowl LI, it's easy to blame the quarterback. But is that fair based on what Matt Ryan did in Sunday's game?

There has been a narrative that has chased Matt Ryan all throughout his NFL career: he can't win in the postseason. Blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl probably won't help change that.

At one point, Ryan's Atlanta Falcons had 98.66% odds of winning Super Bowl LI, according to numberFire Live. Then, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots mounted a major comeback, eventually winning it, 34-28, in overtime. No matter whether it's fair or not, the blame is already pouring in for Ryan's role in this epic collapse.

Even after Ryan sliced and diced the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers to bring the Falcons to the championship, won the league's MVP award, and helped his team build that 25-point lead, the finger pointing seems to be starting with him simply because he is the team's quarterback. While some criticism is certainly warranted, he's not the guy who deserves the blame in this scenario.

Let's show why using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. For Ryan, we'll be focusing on Passing NEP, which tracks the expected points added or subtracted on every drop back he records throughout the game. Yes, "drop back" means it includes expected points lost on sacks, and that will be a key to the discussion.

There were things Ryan should have done differently in Sunday's game, and it's fine to call him out on that. But he doesn't deserve the blame for the team's tough loss. Here's why.

A Lack of Opportunity

When you look at the raw stats and see Brady threw for 466 yards while Ryan had just 284, the easy conclusion would be that Brady unleashed a whooping. But Brady had 62 total attempts, over two and a half times more than Ryan's 23. That changes things.

All in all, the Patriots ran 93 plays compared to just 46 for the Falcons. As numberFire's Brandon Gdula wrote Monday, the Falcons' 46 plays were the second-fewest in Super Bowl history while the Patriots' 93 were the most. This renders all aggregate stats completely null and forces us, instead, to focus on the rate stats.

When we do this, Ryan really doesn't look too poor. Let's focus exclusively on Passing NEP per drop back -- which divides the player's total Passing NEP by their total drop backs -- and Success Rate, which shows the percentage of plays on which a player increased the team's point total for the drive. Of these two guys, who do you think played better?

Quarterback Passing NEP per Drop Back Success Rate
Player A 0.19 53.57%
Player B 0.17 50.75%

To kill any suspense, Player A is Ryan. His Passing NEP per drop back was solid even if it was below his regular-season mark of 0.37. His Success Rate was well above the league-average mark of 47.19% from the regular season. And -- based on this -- it looks like Ryan out-performed Player B.

Player B was Tom Brady in Super Bowl LI. On a per-drop back basis, Ryan had more production than the Super Bowl MVP. Are you sure you want to blame him?

This isn't to say Ryan was necessarily better than Brady on Sunday. There's value in producing at an efficient level at higher volume, so we shouldn't take anything away from Brady's performance. But given the restrictions on Ryan's volume and his output in that volume, it would seem short-sighted to say he's the reason the Falcons lost.

This rate-stat superiority stretches beyond just Ryan and goes to the entire Atlanta offense, as well. The Falcons averaged a whopping 7.5 yards per play for the game while the Patriots were down at 5.9. Offensively, Atlanta actually performed pretty well overall. They just didn't have many opportunities, and penalties killed several of those they did have.

Focusing just on the offense, the team had three penalties during the game. One of them seemed intentional to give extra room on a punt, so we'll toss that out. The other two were both for holding, and they made an impact.

The most notable one was after Julio Jones unleashed this nastiness as the Falcons tried to salt the game away.

Two plays later, Ryan got sacked for a 12-yard loss (more on that in a second). Even after the sack, the Falcons had 1.47 expected points for the drive, and their win odds were at 93.15%. Then, Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu for a nine-yard gain to get them back in field-goal range.

Holding. Tom Compton. Ten yards. Sadness.

Compton was in the game for injured right tackle Ryan Schraeder, and this penalty put the nail in the coffin of a promising drive. Suddenly, they were down to 0.83 expected points for the drive, Sanu's catch was nullified, and the team wound up punting it away.

Although this was the most obvious, there was another holding penalty that had an even bigger impact, also killing a chance at a field goal.

Late in the third quarter, the Falcons were at the Patriots' 32-yard line with a 2nd and 1. Tevin Coleman was stopped for a one-yard loss, but on the play, left tackle Jake Matthews got nailed for holding. Ruh roh.

After the penalty was enforced, the Falcons went from 3.50 expected points for the drive to 2.21. That penalty pushed them back to the 42-yard line, meaning they'd need to get some yardage to be back in range for kicker Matt Bryant. After an incompletion and a sack, they had to give the ball back to the Patriots.

Two holding penalties, both of which killed promising drives and pushed the team out of field-goal range. If they had held their 25-point lead, we'd never care about these. But the game wound up going to overtime, and getting a field goal in either of those instances would have sealed the deal. Unless you're willing to blame Ryan for Schraeder's injury or Matthews' hold, these don't go on him.

Now, this isn't an attempt to gloss over the sacks because those were also big. Let's tackle Ryan's role there to see if it's enough to make him the scapegoat for the crushing loss.

Even the Legitimate Criticism Falls Short

If you're searching for reasons to blame Ryan for the loss, you need not look further than the sack he took late in the fourth quarter that pushed the team back to the fringes of field-goal range. The rush got there in a hurry, but Ryan back-pedaled to the 35-yard line before being taken down for a 12-yard loss. That's a bad play, and he should be open to criticism there. But it doesn't mean he's the reason they lost.

Remember, even after that sack, the Falcons' win odds were 93.15%, and they had 1.47 expected points for the drive. A nine-yard completion to Sanu set up 3rd and 2 at the 26 before holding wiped it out. He had already made up for his mistake, but a penalty reversed that and kept Ryan in the crosshairs.

All in all, Ryan was sacked five times, and it cost the team 11.87 NEP. That's a huge difference in a game that goes to overtime. But there are two things we have to remember here.

First, sacks aren't exclusively the fault of the quarterback. Take this strip sack to be a glowing example.

How did Dont'a Hightower get in there? Devonta Freeman completely whiffed on a block and let him get straight to Ryan. Sure, you could say Ryan should have gotten rid of it sooner, but he didn't force Freeman to blow his assignment.

Second, the NEP numbers from above do include sacks in them. Even if we penalize Ryan fully for the sacks he took, both his Passing NEP per drop back and Success Rate were better than Brady's. Sacks are already in that equation, and he still performed like a boss. They certainly had an impact, but they're not the reason Atlanta lost.

Any blame assessment for the Falcons needs to start and end with their defense. They allowed the Patriots to be on the field for those 93 plays, and they're the reason Ryan never got a crack in overtime.

If you want to turn to that big late-game sack, perhaps the focus should be on the coaching staff. After all, Atlanta just needed a field goal to make it a two-score game with what would have likely been around three minutes remaining. Instead, they called a pass play, putting Ryan at risk of taking a sack, which is exactly what happened.

It's easy to point the finger at Ryan because he's the quarterback, but that's simply a lazy and misguided analysis once you actually look at the numbers.


Ryan was not perfect in Super Bowl LI, and there are certain plays where he's deserving of criticism. But you can't put the blame for the loss on him.

The Falcons' offense did not have nearly the same number of opportunities as the Patriots' thanks to the struggles of their defense. When Atlanta was out there, though, Ryan was efficient, and the offense hummed along well. The only exceptions to this were sacks and penalties.

Even when you account for those sacks, Ryan produced more expected points on a per-drop back basis than Brady did with a higher Success Rate. Additionally, the two holding penalties did more to kill two separate potential point-scoring drives than the sacks did, and Ryan has no control over those.

Ryan has this stench on him from the team's previous failings in the postseason, but that shouldn't affect the way we view him in this specific game. He was tremendous in the regular season, he orchestrated two beatdowns earlier in the playoffs, and he helped them build a huge advantage early. If it weren't for Ryan, there may not have been a Super Bowl to lose or a lead to blow. It's easy to see why he would become the figure of ridicule, but the numbers show that's not the way it should be.