Here’s why Matt Ryan must be on the Mount Rushmore of current NFL quarterbacks

2019_AF_QB-Competition

Ask any NFL fan to name the top quarterbacks in the league and you’ll likely receive a list varying in order but likely including the same names.

That list would certainly contain Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. Those four quarterbacks, with a sampling of other passers, are probably the consensus top-tier among a broad majority of those who follow the game.

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Matt Ryan, as most recently evidenced by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, is not viewed to be in the same category as that Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks.

But should he be?

Well, if we’re objectively analyzing statistics of each quarterback over the past five seasons, the answer is a resounding yes.

Sure, looking purely at black-and-white stats doesn't necessarily tell the full picture. Garbage-time yards and touchdowns can blur the lines between a player’s on-paper greatness and his effectiveness on the field, and undefinable qualities such as how “clutch” a quarterback is won’t be reflected fully by numbers.

There’s also the matter of a team’s performance, which is most closely tied to its quarterback. Fair or not, a quarterback’s reputation is partially colored by his team’s overall success – and each of the four quarterbacks previously listed has won at least one Super Bowl.

Those wide-ranging qualifiers muddy the waters when it comes to judging a quarterback’s ability, but this piece is meant to put all of that aside for a moment. Ultimately, a quarterback can really only control himself, and by extension, his team’s offense.

So, let’s take a look at how Ryan’s total numbers over the past five seasons (since 2014) stack up to those mentioned above during that same time frame.

STAT TOTALS FROM 2014-2018

Table inside Article
Player Completions Attempts Completion percentage Passing yards Touchdowns Interceptions Yards per attempt
Tom Brady 1,826 2,789 65.5% 21,365 158 37 7.7
Drew Brees 2,105 2,984 70.5% 23,356 157 56 7.8
Aaron Rodgers 1,615 2,537 63.7% 18,747 150 28 7.4
Matt Ryan 1,959 2,913 67.3% 23,248 142 56 8.0
Russell Wilson 1,586 2,461 64.4 19,149 144 44 7.8

Since 2014, Ryan has completed 67.3 percent of his passes, second only to Brees’ 70.5 percent. His 23,248 yards are just 108 shy of Brees’ league-leading mark over that five-year stretch and nearly 2,000 yards more than Brady’s total. And Ryan leads all qualified quarterbacks with 8 yards per pass attempt since 2014.

But it’s not all positive for Ryan in this comparison. He has attempted the second-most passes of all five of these quarterbacks, so it’s understandable that his yardage total would be higher, but that does reflect positively on his completion percentage and average yards per pass attempt. What it doesn’t reflect well on is his touchdown total, which is the worst among this group at 142.

Ryan has also tossed 56 interceptions since 2014, tied with Brees for the most in this batch of five.

Yet Ryan is very much in the mix with all four of his contemporary quarterbacks, he just isn’t treated as their equals. An argument could be made that he’s been consistently great but maybe not able to hit the heights of the other four. But that argument doesn’t really hold water when looking at each quarterback’s best season in the last five years.

EACH QUARTERBACK'S BEST STATISTICAL SEASON FROM 2014-2018

Table inside Article
Player Completions Attempts Completion percentage Passing yards Touchdowns Interceptions Yards per attempt
Tom Brady 402 624 64.4% 4,770 36 7 7.6
Drew Brees 471 673 70.0% 5,208 37 15 7.7
Aaron Rodgers 401 610 65.7% 4,428 40 7 7.3
Matt Ryan 373 534 69.9% 4,944 38 7 9.3
Russell Wilson 329 483 68.1% 4,024 34 8 8.3

Ryan’s best season occurred in 2016, the year in which he became the first player in Falcons history to be recognized as NFL MVP. That year he completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His yards per pass attempt of 9.3 that season are the most by any quarterback to start 16 games in NFL history.

Ryan completed a higher percentage of passes, threw for more yards and touchdowns with an equal number of interceptions compared to Brady’s best season over the past five years. The same can be said of Wilson’s best year, although he through one more interception than Ryan.

Rodgers threw two more touchdowns in his best year, but had a lower completion percentage, fewer passing yards and an equal number of interceptions. And Brees had one less touchdown and eight more interceptions than Ryan but completed 70 percent of his passes and threw for 5,208 yards.

So, a feasible argument can be made that in recent NFL history Ryan’s best season is more complete than the league’s pinnacle of passers. He was rewarded for that season with the MVP award, but that seems to be quickly forgotten.

But what about postseason performance, surely that’s where the elite quarterbacks separate themselves from the pack? 

AVERAGE PER-GAME POSTSEASON STATS

Table inside Article
Player Completions Attempts Completion percentage Passing yards Touchdowns Interceptions Yards per attempt
Tom Brady 29.6 45.6 64.9% 339.6 2.1 0.9 7.4
Drew Brees 25.5 37.8 67.5% 305.0 2.3 1.3 8.1
Aaron Rodgers 24.0 39.6 60.6% 281.3 2.4 0.7 7.1
Matt Ryan 22.6 32.8 68.9% 288.4 2.2 0.0 8.8
Russell Wilson 17.9 29.1 61.4% 239.3 1.9 1.3 8.2

On a per-game basis in the postseason, Ryan has completed 68.9 percent of his passes, which is the best mark of this group. He averages 288.4 passing yards in the playoffs, which is third behind Brady and Brees but ahead of Rodgers and Wilson. Ryan is again third with an average of 2.2 touchdown passes, but he has been by far the most protective of the football and has not throw a single playoff interception in the past five seasons.

If he’s not the best playoff quarterback of this group in the past five seasons, he is certainly right in the thick of the conversation. Sure, Brady has won the most Super Bowls in NFL history, which should not and could not be taken away from him. But Ryan’s performance in the most pressure-filled games speaks for itself.

There are always going to be those who view Ryan below the elite tier of NFL quarterbacks, including some right here in Atlanta, but it’s quite plain to see the numbers speak for themselves.

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