Does It Matter If Matt Ryan's Best Days Are Behind Him?

Matt Ryan got paid. Kirk Cousins got paid. Jimmy Garoppolo got paid. Soon, Aaron Rodgers will get paid. (Right now, the Green Bay Packers star quarterback is the third-highest paid quarterback in the NFC North.) That is just how it works in this game -- when you play the most important position in football, you eventually get your money. And if you’re Sam Bradford, you get your money, and then you get your money, and then you get some more money. There is nothing more frustrating in sports than being a fan of a football team without a franchise quarterback. The Jacksonville Jaguars have put together one of the best rosters in the NFL, but Blake Bortles is still playing quarterback and that is not good news for the Jacksonville Jaguars. What if the Jaguars had been the team that ultimately traded for Jimmy G? Would they not immediately be the scariest team in football for the next decade? Instead, they’re stuck with Bortles, for now, and even Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell had to give Bortles a three-year, $54 million extension because that is just what you have to do in the NFL. 

Ryan was always going to get paid. He’s the highest-paid quarterback in football, and he’s not the best quarterback in football. That doesn’t mean that the former Boston College star shouldn’t have been paid $30 million a year. This is not a Joe Flacco-type situation -- Flacco was younger, Flacco was rewarded for his I Seriously Still Can’t Believe This Actually Happened run in the playoffs that ended with a Super Bowl victory, and Flacco was never seriously considered to be a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. Ryan has been a top-10 quarterback for years now, and, even at 33-years-old, will continue to be a top-10 quarterback for the next couple of seasons. After Flacco won that Super Bowl against the 49ers, it was clear he was going to get paid by Baltimore -- they didn’t have a choice, not really. Sometimes, teams take stability at the most important position in football for granted -- yes, I’m looking at you, Washington Football Team -- and not everybody gets a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning or even a Drew Brees. When you know what you have and that player you have is still good enough to win you a Super Bowl, you do whatever you can to keep that player. For every Matt Ryan, there are many more Brock Osweiler's.

Matt Ryan was always going to get paid.

The more interesting question is not *should* Matt Ryan have gotten paid handsomely by the Dirty Birds, no, it’s whether or not the best days are still ahead for the Falcons. After the Falcons announced that the team had officially signed Ryan to that massive extension, the team tweeted out that, “The best is yet to come.” Ryan deserved to get paid, but promoting the idea that the best is yet to come for the 10-year veteran is a different animal altogether. For starters, the Ryan and Kyle Shanahan Connection finished the 2016-17 season with the best offensive DVOA in football, Ryan won MVP, and the Falcons blew a [redacted]. The Falcons will never have a better offense, will never be in a better position to win the Super Bowl midway through the [redacted], and the Ryan will never win another MVP award. Two things can be true: Matt Ryan earned his five-year, $150 million contract and the best is not yet to come for the Falcons.

If only this team was in the AFC. In the other conference, you have the New England Patriots, you have the Pittsburgh Steelers -- until Big Ben retires -- and you have the Jaguars. If the Falcons were able to play in the AFC South versus the NFC South for the duration of Ryan’s latest contract I’d probably be more optimistic about the best being yet to come -- but that’s not the case. The NFC South is as stacked as ever: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have rebuilt their pass rush, the Panthers have found the heir to Steve Smith at wide receiver in D.J. Moore, and the Saints swept the 2017 Rookie of the Year awards. The Falcons missing the playoffs entirely in 2018 isn’t crazy at all, and you could make the case they got even better this offseason. Aaron Rodgers is healthy, the Vikings won the Kirk Cousins Sweepstakes, the 49ers have Jimmy G for a full season, the Eagles get Carson Wentz back. In the NFC, you could make the case for every team to have a real shot at making the playoffs. In the AFC, you could make the case for a third of the conference not having a real shot at making the playoffs for a variety of reasons -- the Bills are an A.J. McCarron injury away from starting a guy who posted a 56.8 completion percentage line at Wyoming, the Dolphins are relying on Ryan Tannehill to stay healthy, the Browns are the Browns, Chiefs lost a bunch of pieces, the Raiders gobbled up all the veterans, and the list goes on.

But the Falcons play in the NFC, and Ryan will have to contend with Wentz, Cousins, Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Stafford ( don’t laugh), Russell Wilson, Jimmy G, Josh Rosen, and more over the duration of this contract. You could easily see the Falcons back in the Super Bowl one more time before Father Time *really* hits Matt Ryan. You could also see easily see them never getting back for the rest of his career. Getting to the Super Bowl once is hard, getting back again is even harder. But getting back to the Promise Land isn’t what matters, no, what matters is if Ryan keeps them in the conversation, if Ryan stays at a top-10 level for the next two-to-three years, if the Falcons don’t regress while the 49ers and the Bears of the world progress. Ryan just has to keep the Falcons in the conversation.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s all fans of the Atlanta Falcons can ask: “Just keep us in the conversation for Super Bowl contention.” As long as Wilson is carrying the Seahawks in Seattle, the 12th men can be rowdy and optimistic. As long as Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone is intact, Packer fans can think about Super Bowl victories because it’s Aaron Fucking Rodgers. If Matt Ryan is still a top-10 quarterback for the next few years, he makes the best of the Steve Sarkisian offense, and the team as a whole competes at a high level, fans should be happy because that’s all you can ask of him.

Atlanta Falcons fans will never see a team as good as the 2016-17 squad. Matt Ryan will never have another season end with another MVP trophy. The team may never even get back to the Super Bowl. The best days of Matt Ryan are behind him, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is if the team can make another Super Bowl run with Matt Ryan being the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. What matters is if Sarkisian can get this offense humming close to the levels of 2016. What matters is whether or not Ryan plays like a franchise quarterback for another four or five years because, really, that’s all you can ask -- to be in the conversation. With Matt Ryan, I’d bet on it.