Atlanta veteran QB Matt Ryan traded to Colts

Matt Ryan threw for 392 yards and five TD passes in a 44-21 win over Green Bay in the 2016 NFC Championship Game.

The Atlanta Falcons traded 14-year starting quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts on Tuesday. The deal marked the end of an era in Atlanta and signaled the start of a massive rebuild.

From the moment the Falcons made Ryan the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, the Boston College product represented the organization with nothing but class and gave it a chance to win on a weekly basis.

This moribund franchise was at rock bottom in 2007 when Atlanta’s superstar Michael Vick was sent to prison for his involvement in a dogfighting scandal. Vick was right there at the top next to the city’s great sports icons like Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy, Dominique Wilkins, John Smoltz and Chipper Jones.

And the city was crushed by Vick’s arrest. The team was in such disarray without Vick that new head coach Bobby Petrino took off after a loss on Monday Night Football to take over as HC of the Arkansas Razorbacks, literally “Calling the Hogs” live on SportsCenter the next night when the school announced his hiring.

But after a 4-12 season without Vick, Ryan became the starter as a rookie in Week 1. On the very first play of his NFL career, Ryan connected with Michael Jenkins for a 62-yard touchdown pass. He would take the Falcons to the playoffs with an 11-5 regular-season record, garnering 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

In 14 seasons, Ryan has led Atlanta to six postseason appearances, two NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. He’s been to four Pro Bowls and won 2016 NFL MVP honors. Ryan has missed only three games in his entire career, two in 2009 and one in 2019.

Atlanta had never enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons before Ryan was drafted. He changed that abysmal franchise history immediately, posting five consecutive winning seasons with records of 11-5, 9-5 (in his 14 starts), 13-3, 10-6 and 13-3.

A three-year slump followed without a playoff berth, but Ryan produced his finest season in 2016. He led the NFL in nine different passing categories, completing 69.9 percent of this throws for 4,944 yards with a 38/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Atlanta coasted to the Super Bowl with a 36-20 home win over Seattle and a 44-21 beatdown of Green Bay. He thoroughly outplayed Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and was seemingly doing the same against Tom Brady two weeks later.

The Falcons had a 28-3 lead over New England late in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, only to allow it to get away in a 34-28 overtime loss. Ryan wasn’t to blame for the Super Bowl collapse. He completed 17-of-23 passes for 284 yards and two TDs without an interception.

The Falcons were back in the postseason again in 2017, winning 26-13 at the Los Angeles Rams to set up an NFC semifinal showdown in Philadelphia. The Eagles stopped the Falcons on a fourth-and-goal play in the final minute to seal a 15-10 win.

In 2018, Dan Quinn’s defense began to crumble, RB DeVonta Freeman couldn’t stay healthy and the offensive line started leaking. The Falcons struggled to back-to-back 7-9 campaigns, and then things went to hell in 2020. They finished 4-12, firing Quinn after a 0-5 start.

The franchise has endured four losing seasons in a row. Jones was traded before the start of the 2021 season. Calvin Ridley quit on the squad before the end of October, saying he needed to concentrate on his mental health. He tweeted as much early in the fourth quarter of a 19-13 home loss to division-rival Carolina.

Before Atlanta could trade Ridley in the past month, he was suspended by the NFL for at least a year for gambling on NFL games. Then last week, the Falcons requested that Ryan push a roster bonus he was due to receive this past Friday to yesterday. He granted the request while Atlanta pursued a trade for then-Houston QB Deshaun Watson.

Atlanta struck out on Watson, who opted to go to the Cleveland Browns instead. The franchise then dealt Ryan to the Colts on Tuesday in exchange for a third-round pick (No. 82 overall). Less than an hour after the pending deal was first reported, the Falcons signed veteran QB Marcus Mariota to a two-year deal worth $8 million.

With the No. 8 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, Atlanta could target their next QB. The Falcons also have a pair of second-round selections (No. 43 and No. 58) and two third-round picks (No. 74 and No. 82).

In dealing Ryan, Atlanta will carry a $40.5 million dead money hit for his contract, the largest such hit in NFL history. His cap implications will now completely come off the books after the 2022 season, though. Therefore, this will obviously be a transition season, but the Falcons’ expectations are that they’ll have more than $100 million worth of cap space to be a major player in the 2023 free-agent market.

With that in mind, Atlanta doesn’t necessarily have to pick a QB with its first pick. This roster has a plethora of holes, which is why I felt it was ridiculous to consider dealing multiple picks (Cleveland had to send three first-rounders to the Texans) for Watson, who is still likely facing an NFL suspension despite the criminal case being dropped against him. (Watson is still facing civil suits from 22 different women.)

If Atlanta isn’t bullish on Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett, it should address another need or trade down for more picks if a team offers a sweet deal to move into the top 10. In Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft released for ESPN this morning, he suggests that the team will choose wide receiver Garrett Wilson out of Ohio St.

With Ridley suspended and Russell Gage leaving to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a three-year deal worth $30 million, the WR position is one of many glaring holes. Another is an edge rusher and if Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux is available at No. 8, he’s a potential option. (Kiper currently has him going seventh to the Giants.)

Kiper has QB Matt Corral currently going No. 32 so if Atlanta trades down, the Ole Miss product might be in play. Purdue DE George Karlaftis is another edge rusher who might be available late in the first round if the trade-down scenario happens.

With the acquisition of Ryan, Indianapolis will have its fifth different starting QB in five seasons. The Colts saw their Super Bowl odds shift from 35/1 to 25/1 at DraftKings.

Meanwhile, Atlanta had 100/1 odds to the win the Super Bowl on March 18 at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas. DraftKings currently has the Falcons at 80/1, while FanDuel has them with 180/1 odds.

Ryan is easily the best QB in Falcons history and probably the best player. He owns every career passing record for the organization. He started 222 regular-season games, producing a 120-102 record despite dealing with poor defenses for most of his tenure, in addition to weak offensive lines and anemic rushing attacks for long stretches of his career.

The 36-year-old Ryan is ranked eighth in NFL history in career passing yards (59,735), ninth in career TD passes (367), seventh in completed passes (5,242), seventh in passing yards per game (269.1 YPG), 13th in passer rating (94.2), third (tie with Matt Stafford) in passes completed per game (23.6), seventh (tie with Dan Marino) in fourth-quarter comebacks (33), ninth (tie with Kurt Warner) in completion percentage (65.5%), fifth in pass attempts per game (36) and 10th (tied with six others) in pass interception percentage (2.1%).

Ryan appears destined to overtake Ben Roethlisberger’s 64,088 career passing yards for fifth place in NFL history late in the 2022 campaign or early in 2023 (barring injury, of course). If he can produce three more seasons with around 4,000 passing yards per, he’ll probably surpass Peyton Manning’s 71,940 yards and rest behind only Drew Brees (80,358) and Brady (84,520 and counting).

There’s really no easy way to move on from a franchise’s greatest quarterback. As a life-long suffering Atlanta fan, I wish the organization would’ve gone about the process better, especially over the past week. Nevertheless, Ryan can’t complain about his destination.

His career goal of winning a Super Bowl is still within reach. Ryan takes over an Indy offense that has a vastly superior offensive line, better WRs and perhaps most important, one of the NFL’s best RBs in Jonathan Taylor. On a better team with a much better supporting cast, coupled with his penchant for always staying healthy, I think Ryan can still play at a high level for another 3-4 years.

I think his accomplishments in Atlanta alone are worthy of his ticket to Canton for enshrinement in the NFL Hall of Fame. After all, you have to go down to the No. 16 spot on the all-time career leaders in passing yards (Vinny Testaverde) fo find a QB that’s not in Canton (assuming he’s already eligible; Carson Palmer at No. 15 will find out this year).

But if he can get the Colts into the postseason more than once and keep producing solid numbers for two years or more, Ryan will remove all doubt about his Hall-of-Fame candidacy.

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