HOUSTON – A year ago, it was unclear which direction Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s career would go.
In 2015, Ryan had perhaps his worst season since his second year in the league. He had just 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Entering this season, as he turned 31, it was fair to wonder if we had already seen the best of Ryan. Then he became the best player in the NFL.
Ryan was given the first MVP award of his career on Saturday night at the NFL’s annual awards show. Although nobody predicted it before the season, he was the clear MVP choice by the end. Ryan threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. His 117.1 rating was the fifth-best in NFL history. He led the Falcons to an NFC South title and a spot in Super Bowl LI. Although players like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott all had strong MVP cases, Ryan was the obvious pick. Ryan got 25 of 50 first-place votes, with Brady finishing second with 10. Elliott got six votes, as did Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, Rodgers got two votes and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott got one.
Ryan has never had an extremely high profile for a longtime NFL starting quarterback, but that might change after this season.
“As a quarterback, he’s a guy that’s never really in the spotlight,” Falcons receiver Julio Jones said. “They talk about quarterbacks a lot and Matt is not one of those guys that you hear a lot from. He’s just a hard working guy, and his consistency over the years that he’s been in the league.”
The theme that kept coming up for Ryan all this week was how hard he worked in the offseason. He worked with quarterbacks instructors Adam Dedeaux and Tom House in California, who are renowned for helping with specific issues like footwork and mechanics. He put in the time to master offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system. Ryan has been a good quarterback through his career, but he clearly wanted even more from himself.
“It’s a challenging task when you’re already playing at a really high level, how do you go to a higher one?” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He nailed that.”
“I think I’ve continued to improve throughout my career and work really hard to get the most out of myself,” Ryan said.
Shanahan spoke this week about how hard Ryan worked last offseason, but also what he brings to the quarterback position. He said Ryan is a “pure, natural thrower” who understands how to play from the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield and hangs in against the rush. And he praised Ryan for how he handles himself off the field.
“The guy is impressive as a human being as you can be around,” Shanahan said. “I think everyone notices that every time he talks. Whenever you have all of those attributes that’s kind of a coach’s dream.”
The NFL is better when there are many stars playing quarterback. Ryan hasn’t really been one of the NFL’s marquee players, but perhaps he’s becoming one. With Peyton Manning retired and Tom Brady and Drew Brees not far behind, Ryan took a big step forward this season. Ryan’s profile will get even bigger if he can pull off an MVP/Super Bowl championship combination. He got the MVP award Saturday, and he said he feels good about Atlanta’s chances to win it all on Sunday.
“I feel really confident.” Ryan said. “I believe in our team. I believe in the guys that we have. I believe in our coaching staff, and I believe that I’m in a good space to get myself ready to play. And I think the combination of those factors make you feel really comfortable.”
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