Matt Ryan Isn’t a Bad Quarterback, He Was Just Never Elite

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t bad -- we might just have ridiculous expectations for him.

From the moment that a five-year-old kid sets foot on a sports field, they're almost always set up for over-expectations by coaches, parents, teammates’ parents, and so on. Every parent wants to believe that their little nugget is the next Tom Brady, the next LeBron James, the next Pedro Martinez. Many more times than not, it just doesn’t happen. 

As a former nine-year-old Pee Wee Football nose tackle bust, I can say with full confidence that I know what I’m talking about.

Still, some of we former gridiron grinders did make it even further and realized the dream of being in the National Football League. But when you get to the big leagues, it seems the expectations only got ridiculously higher, and the margin for error just gets smaller and smaller.

That's why I believe Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t just now becoming terrible -- he just had one exceptional year and we’ve never gotten that out of our heads.

You Can Be Anything You Want

Perhaps one of the least-founded narratives I’ve heard about Matt Ryan’s career progression is that former tight end teammate Tony Gonzalez somehow made “Matty Ice” what he is. The theory goes like this: Gonzalez presented an elite target option in the short passing game for Ryan, and thus he thrived off of short completions underneath.

To be clear, however, there is little to no correlation between a Matt Ryan career surge and the presence of Gonzalez split out for the Falcons. To wit, Gonzalez was traded for prior to the 2009 season and retired after 2013, spending five seasons with Atlanta. Ryan’s worst career season by completion percentage, passing yards, Yards Per Attempt (YPA), and interception rate? 2009.

Many people forget that Ryan was a project coming out of Boston College in 2008. He was unrefined as a passer and didn’t play in a major program, thus not allowing him to be exposed to bigger defensive challenges in his college career. In fact, his rate stats in college severely declined from an impressive -- though small sample -- sophomore 2005 to when he was named a starter at BC in 2006. The table below shows this in his college career in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and interception rate, and his ranks among FBS quarterbacks.

Year Comp% YPA TD% INT%
2004 49.30% 4.9 2.82% 4.23%
2005 62.05% 7.8 4.10% 2.56%
2006 61.65% (33rd) 6.9 (t-61st) 3.53% (84th) 2.35% (31st)
2007 59.33% (60th) 6.9 (t-53rd) 4.74% (t-59th) 2.91% (56th)

Excepting his touchdown percentage, which increased massively, Ryan went from a solid-but-unspectacular game manager to a chaotic gunslinger in his senior year. That’s a theme we would see carried over into the pros.

Delusions of Grandeur

Let me put this plainly: Matt Ryan has had a solid upward trajectory of progression for years now in nearly every statistical category. Just for comparison’s sake, a hypothetical average starting quarterback (minimum 300 attempts) between 2008 and 2015 has had the following rate stats in the NFL, and Ryan’s career rates are matched up against that mark.

Year Comp% YPA TD% INT%
Avg. QB 62.27% 7.3 4.58% 2.58%
Matt Ryan 64.35% 7.2 4.46% 2.36%

Ryan has surpassed this average mark in completion rate in five of eight seasons (including 2014 and 2015, after Gonzalez), five of eight seasons in yards per attempt, four of eight seasons in touchdown rate, and five of eight seasons in interception rate. You know what that is? It’s not elite, but it’s solidly average, and that’s pretty darn good.

Still not convinced? Perhaps a series of charts showing this visually would illuminate Ryan’s career trajectory better. The first we see is his completion rate, and the black line intersecting the graph is the normalized trendline, to help us see the average progression of the data.

Matt Ryan Career Completion Rate

Ryan has developed his accuracy significantly since the beginning of his career. He’s seen an average uptick of about 1.16 percent in his completion rate every year, based on the average trend. He’s not a surgeon with his passes by any means, but 66.3 percent in 2015 was solid.

What about Yards Per Attempt? Has he regressed from his downfield passing at all?

Matt Ryan Career YPA

Not at all. Ryan’s rookie campaign was a more vertical approach, and while he’s had some variation in YPA over the years, he has more or less stayed exactly in line in this statistic.

Perhaps he’s declined in touchdown rate, then?

Matt Ryan Career Touchdown Rate

This one, it is fair to say, has slipped. With the career decline of Roddy White and the loss of Tony Gonzalez, it's entirely possible that Ryan’s red-zone proficiency and big-play scoring has become much less prolific than in previous seasons. 2015 was merely the nail in the coffin for that, when running back Devonta Freeman broke out and gobbled up touchdowns left and right from in close. With a real rushing game behind him, Ryan was able to sit back and take a game manager approach.

Has his riskiness increased? What about his interception rate?

Matt Ryan Career Interception Rate

From 2013 to 2015, he's had a much worse average interception rate (2.48 percent) than from 2010 to 2012 (1.99 percent). That much is very true, and being that touchdowns and interceptions are two of the things that fantasy football is most heavily influenced by, that is why we perceive Ryan to be falling apart as a player. In truth, he’s playing solid football in almost all regards, but not scoring as much and making worse decisions.

The real thing to note with these graphs is the year 2012, the year that Ryan passed for 4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and ripped the NFC South a new one. We still pin that success on him as our expectation. As his upside, that’s fair. But if we expect peak production every year, we’re deluding ourselves.

It’s Okay to Be Just Okay

Finally, because this is a numberFire article, we need to dig into the advanced analytics a bit. If the value analytics show that Ryan has been good, that to me is the final word on it. Let’s look at Ryan’s Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) and see what it reveals.

NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Ryan passes for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The graphs below show Ryan’s Passing NEP, Passing NEP per drop back, and his Passing Success Rate (the percent of completions he converts into positive NEP). Has he gotten worse?

Matt Ryan Career Passing NEP
Matt Ryan Career Passing NEP per Drop Back
Matt Ryan Career Passing Success Rate

It’s fair to wish for Ryan to have done more than he did this year in terms of counting stats; he was just the 19th-best quarterback in standard fantasy scoring. But he isn't a bad NFL quarterback and, really, no worse than he’s been the past three years. In fact, he’s surged each of the past two seasons from his 2013 doldrums. 2012 Matt Ryan was peak Matt Ryan: a moment where everything came together perfectly, just a dream that was realized for a brief span of time.

I think, in time, we as fans and fantasy players can be okay with who he really is.