It’s a post-Matt Ryan world for the Atlanta Falcons in 2022, but things could have been different. Ryan, who was the face of the franchise for 13 seasons after being drafted third overall in 2008, was traded to the Indianapolis Colts back in March.
The solitary third-round pick the Falcons received still seems like a modest return for the franchise passing leader and former NFL MVP. Ryan was exceptional for the majority of his career in Atlanta, something he might have been willing to prolong had the Falcons not openly pursued his replacement this offseason.
The 36-year-old recently talked about how his exit from Atlanta unfolded, and it turns out the Falcons’ participation in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes had a lot to do with Ryan’s desire to find a new home.
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Watson Pursuit Started Ryan Thinking About the Exit
First thing’s first, Ryan knew about the Falcons’ attempts to trade for Watson. He confirmed as much during an appearance on The Ryen Russillo Podcast, via Around The NFL’s Nick Shook: “I kind of got filled in to the loop that they were gonna look into Deshaun Watson.”
Those words shed light on the confusion that reigned about who knew what and when during the height of the Watson trade talks back in March. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter reported Ryan was “informed” in advance, only for the quarterback’s sister-in-law, Maggie Marshall Ryan, to refute the information:
Whenever he found out, Ryan told Russillo (h/t Shook) the news a deal for Watson was on the table prompted his own search for another team: “At that point, I said, ‘Okay, I understand,’ you know, but I also need to look into what I need to look into, and if this doesn’t go down, find out if this is probably still the best fit for me.”
It’s difficult to fault Ryan’s thinking, especially when he’d been a model professional during his time with the Falcons. Yet, there still was an obvious attempt to replace him, an idea that first gained weight when franchise owner Arthur Blank talked about a “succession plan” for Ryan back in February, per Josh Kendall of The Athletic.
The plan went into overdrive when Watson became available, and there was nothing subtle about the way the Falcons went after the 26-year-old. They joined a group of teams including NFC South rivals the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints in pursuit of the quarterback who led the NFL in passing in 2020.
Watson, who missed the 2021 season facing allegations of sexual misconduct, eventually chose to join the Cleveland Browns, who traded three first-rounders to get him. His decision was something of a shock considering the connection between the Falcons and the former Houston Texans starter.
Blank knew Watson from the player’s days at Gainesville High in Georgia. Watson also worked as a ballboy for the Falcons, per Kendall. Momentum for Georgia native Watson to play for the Falcons was so far advanced CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson reported “strong mutual interest” between the two parties to get a deal done:
Anderson also tweeted about how various figures from Atlanta’s sports and music worlds were making their own efforts to court Watson, all while Ryan was still on the roster:
The Falcons ultimately failed to sway Watson, despite the hype. In the process, they alienated one of the more reliable players in franchise history.
Ryan Might’ve Stayed
Catching Ryan off guard came at a cost. Specifically, it ended any possibility of him remaining in Atlanta, something the veteran believes might have happened had things played out differently.
Ryan told Russillo: “Um, you know, had none of this gone down, there’s probably a chance. A pretty good chance. But it did, you know, and so when it does, when the situation is changed, when the circumstances change, you know, I had always thought — like everybody — when you’re drafted there and you play there, this is where I’m going to play my entire career.”
There may be a slight tinge of resentment, because Ryan noted how the Falcons had always backed him, right up until the moment they didn’t: “(For) fourteen years, every day I woke up to try to help the Falcons win a championship. And that had been reciprocated on the other end for me. And so, when that changed, I had to look into it, and it’s certainly been a big change for sure, but a good one.”
If Ryan feels slighted, however mildly or otherwise, his frustrations would be understandable. He was a model of consistency for the Falcons, throwing 20 or more touchdown passes in every season except his rookie year.
Ryan also broke the 4,000-yard barrier for 10-straight seasons, beginning in 2011. His efficiency is best summed up by a pass success rate charted by Next Gen Stats since 2016:
Those numbers didn’t just mean success for Ryan. They also helped transform the Falcons, who were a playoff team six team on Ryan’s watch, although the quarterback went just 4-6 in the postseason, per StatMuse.
Ryan’s best moments came in 2016, when he was named league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, en route to leading the Falcons to Super Bowl LI. A heartbreaking, 34-28 loss to the New England Patriots, after the Falcons had led 28-3, shouldn’t tarnish Ryan’s legacy in Atlanta.
It’s a legacy the Falcons will find hard to replicate. Especially since Marcus Mariota, a backup the last two seasons for the Las Vegas Raiders, and third-round pick Desmond Ridder are the most likely candidates to replace Ryan in 2022.
The timing couldn’t be worse, with the Falcons losing the only competent and proven QB in the NFC South, aside from Tom Brady. It means the Falcons will join the Saints and Panthers in continuing to look up at Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That reality will be a lot tougher to bear if Ryan leads the Colts to a championship. Then there’ll be more than a few in Atlanta regretting those ill-fated attempts to trade for his replacement.