Bair: How Arthur Smith calling Matt Ryan 'criminally underrated' does more than create debate

The line started a national dialogue about Matt Ryan, which sheds light on all the good he has done

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Arthur Smith lavished praise on Matt Ryan after his quarterback led the Falcons to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory over the Miami Dolphins.

"He's a special player," Smith said after Sunday's 30-28 result at Hard Rock Stadium. "I personally think he's criminally underrated if you look at his career here in the National Football League."

Criminally underrated. That's a powerful term.

It's also an agenda setter that activated Spidey senses in TV producers everywhere. Statements like that, after all, are debate-show catnip.

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NFL Network addressed it on its morning show, and also used it as a launch point for entire article about underrated players in the Ryan class. Even ESPN's a.m. show spent a segment discussing whether Matt Ryan was "criminally underrated," one I thought would turn into a bombastic scream fest.

Steven A. Smith and Michael Irvin were shockingly measured, a reaction I'd never associated with hosts of a show that often raises the volume while lowering the level of discourse.

I haven't asked him directly, but I can't imagine Smith designed his comment to be a conversation starter. He was simply complimenting a quarterback he knows firsthand is better than most people think, right after an emotional win the Falcons wouldn't possess without him.

The fact that this is being discussed on a national level, even in polarizing ways, is a good thing. Why? It (hopefully) forces people to do some research, to take a deeper dive in Ryan's storied career and all the good he has done. It also sheds light on what Ryan's doing lately, especially during the last four games.

I didn't decide to write this column to take a side on this issue, which eventually focuses more on the term as a standard and less on the player's merits themselves.

Nah. I'm not into that.

If you've read Ryan-related Bair Mails or my last Matt Ryan column discussing his perception both inside the Atlanta market and out, it's pretty clear where I stand.

I don't need to re-litigate the fact I think you can fit him for a gold jacket now, that he's country miles from washed, that he's an excellent leader and field general who can flat sling it. I'm winning each round with the haters 10-8 anyway, so I don't need to keep throwing haymakers. A unanimous decision's coming my way.

Take a look at who we think the top 10 players were in this Sunday's game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins.

I'll let Smith take the floor instead, providing insight about Ryan that got far less play than the criminally underrated line, even though it came from the same press conference.

"It's the toughest position to play in all of pro sports. It's the most overanalyzed," Smith said. "That's what makes this game fun. That's why they get paid a lot of money. I think it's probably the most misunderstood position, too.

"For a guy to do it and have the production he's had year over year, consistently, and then come in here and lead this football team and to lead by example, you can coach Matt Ryan, and the great players that I've been around -- obviously, he's got confidence, but he's going to lead this football team in a way to lead from the front.

"He's going to come to work every day and work hard. There are just not many guys who have had the production he's done for a long time. In any industry, somebody that sustains success, those are the people I look at. I've been pleased, and I feel fortunate to work with Matt."

Ryan sidestepped the "criminally underrated" talk, as he does with most all legacy questions he gets at age 36. The quarterback remains, as always, locked in the present.

"I appreciate the confidence (Arthur Smith) puts in me week in and week out," Ryan said. "That means a lot to me. That's what I've always tried to draw my confidence off of is my process, the way that I work, the way that I prepare, and the opinion of the people that I trust. I really appreciate him."

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