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Matt Ryan is the NFL’s most underappreciated quarterback

A Super Bowl ring is the only thing he has left to accomplish, but even if he never gets one, he still deserves our respect.

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This week at SB Nation, we’re shining the spotlight on the NFL’s most underappreciated — from our favorite underdog stories to the most overlooked players and teams. Now’s the time to give them their due.

Matt Ryan has been the NFL’s most underappreciated quarterback of the past decade. Ryan doesn’t have a style of play that leads to breathtaking highlights or incredible feats of athleticism. He just shows up, puts up numbers, wins games, and keeps it moving.

Ryan didn’t exactly step into an easy situation, either.

The Atlanta Falcons were in a state of turmoil prior to drafting Ryan. Michael Vick was in prison, head coach Bobby Petrino quit during the 2007 regular season, they didn’t have any viable options at quarterback, and quite frankly, it didn’t look like they had a promising future.

All of that changed when the Falcons took Ryan third overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.

Since entering the league, Ryan has the most passing yards in NFL history for the first 10 years of a player’s career, he’s only missed two games, he’s tied for the most fourth quarter comebacks, and he’s put together some impressive playoff performances (even in losses).

Yet Ryan doesn’t get the same respect that his peers do. You won’t find him near the top of quarterback rankings, or even in the first tier. NFL Network rated him as just the 69th on its Top 100 player rankings. He doesn’t have many accolades in his career outside of the NFL MVP he won in 2016, either. Ryan has been selected for the Pro Bowl four times — the same as Eli Manning and just one more than Derek Carr and Andy Dalton.

What Ryan doesn’t have is a Super Bowl win. That has some people underestimating both the value he brings to the Falcons and his talent.

But when you compare his numbers to other quarterbacks around the league, Ryan is better than just about everybody.

Ryan has been productive his entire career, based on both regular and advanced stats

Ryan’s stats are hard to top, especially over the last four seasons. Among all 30 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts since the 2015 season, Ryan ranks first in yards per attempt (8.12), second in adjusted yards per attempt (8.29), fourth in passer rating (101.2), and has thrown the fifth-most touchdowns (114).

Ryan shines in the advanced statistics as well.

Since he was drafted in 2008, Ryan consistently has been near the top of ESPN’s Quarterback Rating (QBR) statistic. QBR packages every aspect of a quarterback’s game — passing, rushing, turnovers, and penalties. Other than in 2009 when Ryan was banged up for the last quarter of the season with turf toe, he has finished in the top 10 every year.

Ryan has also been in the upper tier in Success Rate and Expected Points Added throughout his career. That means he keeps his offenses maximizing on their field position and scoring points at a higher rate than average quarterbacks.

It’s true that Ryan has been fortunate to play with elite talent over the years. Hell, he had Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez as his receiving options for three years. But Ryan still had to get them ball, and he’s the main reason that Atlanta has been a successful franchise in the past decade.

Since Ryan took the helm in 2008, the Falcons are sixth in winning percentage during the regular season (58 percent) and are one of seven teams to win more than 100 games — New England, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Green Bay, Baltimore, and Indianapolis have also hit 100 wins. Atlanta and Indianapolis are the only teams not to win a Super Bowl in that time frame, though the Colts won the Super Bowl following the 2006 season.

That’s not really on Ryan, however. The Falcons’ biggest problem has been their defense.

Atlanta’s defense hasn’t been able to keep up with Ryan

The Falcons have rarely fielded a competent defense in the Matt Ryan era.

Since the 2013 season, the Falcons haven’t had a defense ranked higher than 22nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. DVOA compares each team on a “league-average baseline,” accounts for every single play, and adjusts for quality of opponent. It’s a comprehensive metric that the Falcons haven’t fared well in.

You don’t even need advanced statistics to confirm that they’ve heavily leaned on their offense since Ryan was drafted. Atlanta has ranked in the top 10 in total offense for eight of Ryan’s 11 seasons, while the defense only hit that benchmark once, in 2017. In 2014, the team ranked dead last in total defense.

The Falcons were in position to have their strongest defense of Ryan’s tenure in 2018, but they were wrecked with injuries. Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen all missed significant chunks of time, while Grady Jarrett and Takk McKinley played through injuries during the season.

That 2018 season was a microcosm of Ryan’s career. He ranked third in the league in yards (4,924), tied for third in touchdown passes (35), had the third-lowest interception rate (1.2 percent), and tied for fifth in adjusted yards per attempt (8.7) for the season. Despite Ryan’s strong season, Atlanta was only able to finish with a 7-9 record, due in large part to an injury-riddled defense that finished 25th in points per game (26.4).

The Falcons have been no stranger to similar misfortune during Ryan’s career — especially in the playoffs.

Some of the Falcons’ playoff failures under Ryan have been straight up bad luck

The Falcons haven’t made the playoffs every year of Ryan’s career, but he has taken it up a notch when they do. In 10 postseason appearances, his yards per attempt (7.6), touchdown percentage (5.7), completion percentage (67.5), and passer rating (100.8) are all better than his average numbers during the regular season.

But his record in the playoffs is just 4-6, thanks mostly to some tough breaks and blown leads. The Falcons’ last three playoff losses encapsulate that.

2012 NFC Championship Game vs. the 49ers

Ryan did his share throughout this game, completing 30 of his 42 passes for 396 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. The Falcons were even up 24-14 at halftime, but they would soon blow that lead.

The way their final drive ended was suspect, though.

With the Falcons trailing 28-24, Roddy White had a chance to convert on fourth down with about a minute left, until he ran into some rough coverage from NaVorro Bowman.

Sure, the pass was a little behind, but White drew enough contact to get a pass interference or an illegal contact penalty. That would’ve given the Falcons a fresh set of downs with fewer than 10 yards to go for a touchdown that could’ve punched their ticket to Super Bowl 47.

Super Bowl 51 vs. the Patriots

For most of Super Bowl 51, Ryan looked well on his way to earning MVP honors. He only threw 23 passes, but he turned that into 284 yards and two touchdowns. He had a passer rating of 144.1 for crying out loud!

Up 28-20, Atlanta had a chance to ice the game after Ryan completed an absurd pass to Julio Jones, putting the Falcons in field goal range with under five minutes to go.

But instead of running the ball, the Falcons called a pass play — and the disastrous result really wasn’t Ryan’s fault. He was sacked, then Jake Matthews was called for a hold, and the Falcons ended up facing a third-and-33, knocking them out of field goal range.

Then, the unforgettable Julian Edelman catch happened.

The game eventually went to overtime and Ryan didn’t even touch the ball. Atlanta’s defense let New England march right down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown.

(Fun fact: the Falcons are the only team to lose a game without trailing once.)

2017 Divisional Round vs. the Eagles

Ryan had just 210 passing yards and a touchdown in a Divisional Round loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but he helped the Falcons stay competitive in what was a defensive slugfest. Then on the last drive, bad luck struck yet again.

Atlanta faced a fourth-and-goal down 15-10 with a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game. For some ungodly reason, the Falcons called a rollout.

Instead of using the entire field, they cornered themselves into a hole on one side of the field and still almost pulled it off. Ryan bought time for himself after Julio Jones initially slipped in the end zone and lofted a perfect pass.

Which unfortunately slipped right through Jones’ hands.

It was a great throw and just a misfire by the usually steady Jones. It happens. Especially to the Falcons.

Matt Ryan had big shoes to fill after replacing Michael Vick and he’s done more than that. Not only has Ryan become the clear-cut best quarterback in Falcons history — he’s by far their all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns — he’s also developed into one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL.

Ryan isn’t the flashiest or most exciting quarterback, and he’s had the benefit of playing with incredible skill talent, including Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and future Hall of Famer Julio Jones. He’s still searching for that Super Bowl ring, which continues to elude him despite his solid postseason play. But none of that should take away from what he’s accomplished on an individual level.

It’s time to put some respect on Matt Ryan’s name.