Matt Ryan and the excruciating distance between very good and great
MIDWAY THROUGH THE fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, Matt Ryan dropped back to pass in what sadly would be the most memorable play of his career. You remember the stakes: He was trying to stave off the charging Patriots, who were once down 28-3. To that point, Ryan had been an uneven playoff performer throughout an otherwise excellent career, seemingly limited not only physically but cosmically, lacking the magic of the greats.
He had done so much, helping resuscitate a franchise reeling from the Michael Vick dogfighting fallout, and yet as he became one of the best quarterbacks in the league he was also infamous for what he could not do. For a while, he couldn’t win in the playoffs. Then he couldn’t take a team to the Super Bowl. He definitely couldn’t throw on the run; whenever he tried, it seemed to trigger a sort of football bingo card for the worst kind of disaster at the least-affordable moment.
Compounding every mistake was the fact that Ryan cared. He wanted to be great, and everyone knew he wanted to be great, and so when he fell short, whether it was his fault or not, you not only heard the sports debate shows questioning him — questioning whether he was “elite,” a descriptor that barely existed before Ryan and his fellow Class of 2008 quarterback Joe Flacco — but you could feel Ryan questioning himself. It seemed to gall him that the outside narrative mirrored his own internal voice.
But during the 2016 season, everything changed. Ryan was the regular-season MVP. During that playoff run, he threw nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. He had outplayed Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game, and to that point, had outplayed Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. He was not only less than nine minutes from a championship, but also from probably clinching a spot in the Hall of Fame. He was a quarterback in the 98th percentile of his craft, about to move into the 99th.
So he dropped back, and while we remember everything that went wrong on the play — Patriots linebacker Donta Hightower rushing from the far edge … Falcons running back Devonta Freeman whiffing on him … Hightower hitting Ryan as he reared to throw, the key sequence in a comeback that changed so many legacies — some of the Falcons coaches would remember one thing. In private conversations when reliving that traumatic loss, they remember that Ryan, after doing so much right — drifting away from pressure and spotting a receiver open downfield — did one thing wrong: He hitched. He paused, for a split second, with the ball in his hands, rather than just cutting it loose. There’s a reason Bill Belichick later said that it was a “fraction of a second away from being a bad play” for the Patriots. And yet, because there’s always an “and yet” with Ryan, if he had just decided to fire the ball, just trusted what he saw a little faster, just done what the immortal quarterbacks do as a matter of habit and instinct, if Matt Ryan had just …
I’LL ADMIT THAT I was sad to watch the 2022 season play out as it did for Matt Ryan, which is strange considering all of his problems are first-world problems and first-world quarterback problems. He announced Monday that he’s going to broadcast games for CBS this year, an unofficial-official retirement as he waits for the Colts to pay him $12 million due by his contract. By any measure, Ryan had a phenomenal career and has had a fortunate life. Until he was demoted this year, he had never had to fight for playing time. He’s worked hard and has produced. He was an All-Pro, a four-time Pro Bowler, and the second-fastest to throw for 60,000 yards. He threw 383 regular-season touchdown passes and completed almost 66% of his passes. He was a civic treasure in Atlanta. He’s made a fortune and has a beautiful and expanding young family and his health.
What made me sad for him was not that he failed to win a Super Bowl, or even that he failed to return to his form of 2016 and 2017, when he was probably at his best. It’s that he never became what he wanted most: an undisputedly great quarterback. His drive was addictive and seductive and inspirational, helping him transcend limited physical gifts. And he was so close, better than 98% of quarterbacks in NFL history. But that final 1% — well, Ryan and I spoke many times over the years, and the subtext of every conversation was how to take the last step, from very, very good to great. Nobody knows how you do it, there’s no manual, and the gap is so slim that you could argue that he’d achieved it or not, depending on the performance, and you would be right either way.
But he had plateaued in that nebulous, vague space of unknowingness. In 2013, after the Atlanta Falcons lost to the Patriots when a last-second Ryan pass fell incomplete in the end zone, I stood with Tony Gonzalez and his family and friends in a parking garage attached to the stadium. Ryan and his wife, Sarah, walked by. After they passed, Gonzalez said, “Matt’s an excellent quarterback. But he’s not elite. He’s this close. He’ll get there, but he’s got some learning to do.”
And yet: He never got there. Or, if he did, he didn’t stay there for long. Along the way, he became known for something far worse than having a career most quarterbacks would dream of: He became known for losing. It was a particularly damning kind of losing, too. He wasn’t a heroic loser, throwing for a million yards in wasted efforts, like Matthew Stafford was in Detroit. And Ryan wasn’t an actuarial loser, because anyone with access to Pro Football Reference can look up his statistics and see that he won a majority of his games, and that he also won more games than celebrated winners like Eli Manning, who has a similar sample size.
No, after 28-3, Ryan became known for these death spiral losses, losses that crush souls and uproot coaches’ families and scar not only a person and team but a city, losses that still seem inconceivable, losses that get pegged to a quarterback rather than a defense, no matter how big of a cushion Ryan would gift his team, losses with blown leads after the Super Bowl of 17 points to Miami, 10 points to Carolina, 20 to Dallas, 16 to Chicago, 17 to Tampa Bay and Tom Brady (because of course), 10 to Washington. Losses that didn’t stop last season when Atlanta traded Ryan to Indianapolis — when Ryan became the kind of franchise quarterback whose franchise decided to look for another franchise quarterback — and the Colts were up 31 against the Vikings, only to, you know.
Now that he’s walking away, it’s more than the presumed end of an outstanding career. His striving is over. He will never get to where he wanted to go. The magnitude of Ryan’s losses seem inconceivable against the slim margin between very, very good and great, between the 98th percentile and the 99th. But maybe that margin is slim in numerical value only. Maybe when we’re talking about quarterbacks, and the undiscernible traits that separate them, the traits are more discernible than any of us want to admit, certainly the decision-makers in the NFL who build teams led by quarterbacks who are almost magical. Maybe there’s a big gap, and the failure is not in scouting but in the stubborn desire we have to manufacture hope, when everyone seems to know how it’s going to end, even the man under center.
Back in 2012, after a long talk about how badly Ryan wanted to take that final step and how hard it was, I wished him luck.
“Well, if you figure it out, call me,” he said.
“I wish it were that simple,” I said.
“You and me both.”
TO ME, HIGHTOWER’S strip sack wasn’t the most memorable Matt Ryan play of Super Bowl LI. That came a few minutes later. The Falcons were up 28-20, but a Patriots win now seemed likely, even if nobody knew how it would happen, only that it would happen, because of the ironclad certainty of Tom Brady. But then, Ryan hit Freeman for 39 yards. And two plays later, he executed not only one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history, but something that right then appeared to be a man announcing his presence on the most exclusive stage in the highest-leverage situation possible, overcoming not only circumstance but himself. Hours of work, trying to turn his faults into something less than faults, appeared to pay off.
First, he dropped back and dodged rushers, which he had never done well. Then, he threw on the run, which in prior playoff appearances — like when he threw a pick-six against the Packers in 2011 — often ended in disaster. But his throw to Julio Jones on the sideline was better than perfect, better than Bradshaw to Swann, than Montana to Taylor, than Favre to Freeman, than Elway to Smith, than Warner to Bruce, than Brady to Brown, than Manning to Tyree, better than anything Bart Starr or Joe Namath or Bob Griese or Phil Simms or Doug Williams or Jeff Hostetler or Mark Rypien or Troy Aikman or Steve Young or so many Super Bowl winners ever threw on their day before the world. It was the type of pass that seemed destined to change history and legacy, replayed for generations with heroic music behind it …
But we know what happened next, a disaster with a world championship on the line that even now is hard to fathom. The Patriots stuffed a run. Then Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss, the one kind of sack you just can’t take that as Ryan’s career went on, he always seemed to take. A completion to put Atlanta back into field goal range — a completion that would have turned Ryan back into a Super Bowl hero — was erased by a holding call. And then an incompletion, a punt back to New England, and Tom Brady took over yet again.
We know that Matt Ryan wasn’t solely responsible for it, but he did contribute to it, and that he couldn’t stop it, and that even in the next season, when he led the Falcons back to the playoffs and won a playoff game on the road and nearly beat the eventual champion Eagles, he couldn’t stop what would unfold over the coming years. Matt Ryan won’t be forgotten by history. He might even end up in the Hall of Fame. But he worked his life to transcend the chasm between very, very good and great and ended up as an exemplar of the chasm itself. His most memorable throw is memorable because of what it wasn’t, because of what he wasn’t, if anyone remembers it at all.