Bert Bell Winner Matt Ryan Cares About One Thing: Winning
By Joseph Santoliquito
Someone broaches a word and Matt Ryan laughs at the label because he’s heard it before. This was prior to Ryan being truly introduced on the world stage this past season as the NFL’s MVP, prior to being out there under the eyes of millions playing quarterback in Super Bowl LI for the Atlanta Falcons, prior to him becoming a “superstar.”
Ryan smirks, and ponders the term again.
“Boring,” he repeats to himself, as a smile peels across his face. He was just a few years into his NFL career and someone he’s known for over a decade was teasing him.
Ryan wants an explanation. Well, if boring means being on time to practice and meetings, being there for his teammates, caring about winning, doing the right things on and off the field and never embarrassing his family, friends or teammates by doing something stupid, then maybe Ryan falls under that category in comparison to the glam modern athlete who’s constantly on sordid TMZ sports reports.
“I can live with that,” said Ryan, 31, who was then picking up a hint of a Southern twang in his early years with the Falcons. “So call me boring. One thing I won’t do is be someone that I’m not. You see guys do that all of the time. That’s not me. It’s not the way I was raised. This is who I am, this is who I’ve always been. What’s wrong with being decent to people? What’s wrong with being yourself if you’re confident in who you are? I’m not perfect. I’m far from perfect. Did you ever see me after a loss?”
This past February, the world did, as Atlanta collapsed against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
As a throng of media and photographers formed around Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, a tall, skinny guy whose hair was matted down by sweat waded through the pack and was one of the first to congratulate the Patriots’ quarterback.
It was Ryan.
And it was typical.
As is Ryan being considered among the best NFL quarterbacks over the last three years. The recipient of the Maxwell Football Club’s prestigious Bert Bell award as the 2016 Pro Player of the Year, the former Penn Charter and Boston College standout is now on the same pantheon as Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees—all former Bert Bell winners.
In 2016, Ryan had the kind of season he probably couldn’t not have dreamed up himself. He threw a career-best 38 touchdowns, against a career-low seven interceptions. He threw for a career-best 4,944 yards, and had an astounding quarterback rating of 117.1. He completed 373 of 534 passes for another career-high 69.9-percent completion rate. Ryan, the third-overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, set single-season franchise records in passing yards, touchdowns, passer rating, completion percentage and 25-plus-yard passes (42) last season.
But what was most important to Ryan—what’s always been the most important—is that the Falcons won. They finished 11-5 and reached the playoffs for the first time in four years and the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history. In nine seasons in the NFL, Ryan’s record as a starter is 85-57, which means he’s won at a 67-percent rate in the NFL. As a starter, Ryan has had only two losing seasons. Led by Ryan, the Falcons have experienced their best decade in franchise history, averaging 9.4 victories a year.
Those are the numbers Ryan cares about. It’s why he’s always been a winner, from the time he chewed up the Inter-Ac League at Penn Charter with an option running attack, to the time he was at Boston College, leading the Eagles to three-straight bowl victories, and now with the Falcons.
Ryan is the all-time leading quarterback in Falcons’ history, obliterating the franchise record book for career touchdowns (240), yards (37,701) and completions (3,288), but again, what means more to him than any of those figures is 85—the Atlanta franchise record for victories by a starting quarterback. He’s the greatest quarterback in Falcons’ history.
The only thing missing is a Super Bowl ring.
He was close to it on February 5, 2017. It will no doubt push his determination level to a higher plain moving forward.
“That drive came early in my life,” Ryan said. “It came from my father and definitely from my grandfather (maternal patriarch Sam Loughery, a World War II navy veteran whose crew was bombed at Pearl Harbor and the father of six, five girls and a boy). My grandfather always preached to us it’s always been about a bat, a ball and a glove, not your mouth. It’s probably why you don’t see me talking it up to guys during games.
“I never did since I first started playing sports, and won’t do it now. People like to probe and they want to look deep, but I’m pretty simple to understand: I want to win.”
Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank doesn’t want to let go. Ryan still has two years left on a six-year, $103.75-million deal he signed in July 2013, including $59 million guaranteed. Before the Super Bowl, Blank went public in promising that he wants to keep Ryan in Atlanta for the duration of what should be a lengthy NFL career, making the Exton, Chester County native the highest paid player in the NFL today.
“Obviously, Matt has done an excellent job,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said before the Super Bowl. “We want him to be here for many, many, many years. It will be on our radar sometime in the near future.”
As for Ryan himself, he won’t change. He considers Atlanta home now, but he still has a place in his heart for his roots. He’ll come back to the Jersey shore this summer, as he usually does, probably find time to visit Penn Charter, as he usually does in the offseason, and think ahead to 2017. Nothing will change, including him. Hours after the Super Bowl, he was trying to rinse out of his mind what just happened and look toward getting back.
“It’ll sting tonight, for sure,” Ryan said. “I think everybody is disappointed, for sure. It’s not easy when you’ve come this far and didn’t get the result that you wanted. Like all things, we’ll move past it, come together and hopefully put ourselves right back in this position. We’ve got a young football team, a good football team. So, hopefully we put ourselves in this position again next year.”
Winner: Bert Bell Award – 2016 Atlanta Falcons