The quarterback position is the most influential position in sports.
That fact has become even more concrete in the last few years as the game of football continues to evolve into more complex passing offenses that put the game in the quarterbacks' hands even more.
While there are probably about 15 or 20 “good quarterbacks” in the NFL right now, the line between good and great is a big one to cross. Honestly, the only way to do it is to win a Super Bowl. That’s why there is only a handful of “great quarterbacks” in the league right now.
Even guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning — who have three Super Rings between them — are only playing good football this season. Their teams are winning, but they are not dominating their positions like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees (Peyton Manning would be in this category, if only he wasn’t injured this season).
Over my next five to seven columns, I’m going to analyze quarterbacks who are trying to make “the leap” from good to greatness. We’ll lead off with Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“Matty Ice,” as he is nicknamed, is one of the league's best game managers. His pre-snap decision-making is great, including his ability to audible at the line of scrimmage. He’s very good out of play action and works hard to prepare for his opponent in the film room. So what keeps him from being elite?
Ryan may be great at managing a game, but he has yet to show he can dominate one. Defenses know that if they can shut down Michael Turner and the running game, the Falcons are a very mediocre offense. Ryan is yet to show he can be turned loose. None of the four elite quarterbacks mentioned above have ever really had a dominant run game, yet their offenses have always been among the top in the league. Unlike Brady and company, you can’t just spread the field with weapons and let “Matty Ice” go to work from the shotgun.
This was fine in Ryan’s first three seasons as he was developing and becoming acclimated to the fast pace of the NFL. But year four is really a year when you want your franchise quarterback to take a big step forward. Ryan’s eight touchdowns and six interceptions in the first six games of the season have him looking like he’s actually taken a step back from last season.
There really is no reason the Falcons' passing attack should be as underachieving as they are besides Ryan’s mediocrity. Julio Jones and Roddy White are both legitimate weapons at wide receiver and tight end Tony Gonzalez is one of the best at his position ever and is still playing at an elite level despite his age.
If Ryan wants to make “the leap,” he needs to develop uncanny timing and chemistry with his young, talented receiving core that the Falcons will benefit from for years. You don’t see Ryan making back shoulder throws to White like you do Rodgers and Greg Jennings. You don’t see him throwing out routes on a line like you do Brady and Wes Welker. The difference is chemistry, timing and trust.
Until Ryan elevates his game and starts making not just the great throws, but the impossible ones, I don’t see the Falcons ever getting over the hump.