Matt Ryan is primed for another MVP season in 2021

Jan 3, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 3, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Matt Ryan may be approaching the end of his career, but he’s capable of a grand finale.

Finally unshackled from Dan Quinn, Dirk Koetter, and the most mistake-prone coaching staff ever assembled, Matt Ryan is primed to return to MVP form.

Arthur Smith’s appointment as head coach should bring with it an offense tailored to Ryan’s skillset. Creative play calling should also limit some of the offensive line’s vulnerabilities, an Achilles heel of the team. In the two seasons under Koetter, Ryan was sacked 89 times in just 31 games.

Only Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson were sacked more.

For the first time in his career, there’s a real possibility that the Falcons are looking towards a future without Ryan, but he’ll be hoping that he can follow the lead of Aaron Rodgers, look his replacement in the eye, and show that he still has what it takes.

Matt Ryan is an elite play-action quarterback

One of Ryan’s biggest strengths is his ability to make plays on the move. He’s never relied on rushing ability like Lamar Jackson or Michael Vick (although we have delighted in some unexpected highlights over the years). Still, he has consistently excelled outside the pocket.

Under Smith, the Titans used play action at a higher rate than any other team in the league in 2020. Per Pro Football Reference, 35.88 percent of the team’s pass attempts came off play-action.

The Falcons, on the other hand, used play-action on 24.68 percent of their pass attempts.

When we think of the most effective play-action offenses, they often have similar pieces in place to the Titans with a top running back and a mobile quarterback. Studies in recent years have shown that the strength of a running game actually has little impact on play-action success.

Travis Somers of Cowboys Wire looked at multiple metrics often used to measure proficiency, such as Expected Points Added (EPA) and Success Rate, and concluded that the standard of quarterback play is actually far more significant.

Few offenses do a better job of illustrating this than the Falcons under Dirk Koetter. With Todd Gurley appearing to be getting less explosive with every play and a traditional pocket passer, the Falcons were still one of the top play-action offenses in the NFL.

On play action, the team averaged 9.24 yards per attempt, the fourth-highest mark in the league. On all other pass plays, the team averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, which ranked 24th. Smith will undoubtedly hope that Ryan doesn’t have to throw the ball 626 times, as he did a year ago, and a more efficient passing game could be key to that.

The Falcons receivers should be healthy

Julio Jones isn’t getting younger, but he’s still one of the best wide receivers in the league. He missed much of the season but was on pace for 1,371 receiving yards, despite often spending time on the sideline even when active.

There’s no indication that his injury should linger into 2021, and he can be a huge help to Ryan, who often relies on the future Hall of Famer in clutch time.

Calvin Ridley stepped up admirably in Jones’s absence, proving his ability to be a number one receiver. Having two stud options on the outside will mean that Ryan won’t be forced to throw into double coverage and can progress through his reads.

Jones and Ridley both get great separation due to their outstanding route running.

Per Player Profiler, Ridley averaged the 22nd most separation per target in 2020, while Jones was 26th, impressive numbers for players who aren’t mere deep threats.

Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst both had breakout seasons and can be counted on to take advantage of favorable situations. There’s an expectation that the Falcons will add to their receiving corps (either with a WR or TE) this offseason.

Could Matt Ryan win MVP in 2021?

It was a surprise to many when Matt Ryan won MVP in 2016. People pointed to the supposed top-level surrounding talent as if he didn’t throw touchdowns to an NFL-record 13 different receivers, many of whom faded into obscurity after that year.

Taylor Gabriel, who finished third on the team in receiving yards, had been picked up on waivers earlier in the season. Mohamed Sanu’s previous best season saw him average 49.4 receiving yards per game, which would have placed him somewhere between Russell Gage and Tim Patrick in 2020.

They also pointed to Kyle Shanahan, who in his other 12 seasons as an offensive coordinator or the head coach has had only two in which his QB has been named to the Pro Bowl – Matt Schaub in 2009 and Robert Griffin III in 2012.

Ryan isn’t going to be overthrowing players 50 yards downfield like Josh Allen. Still, he showed on several occasions last season, most notably a long touchdown to Olamide Zaccheaus, that he’s capable of hitting receivers deep.

Arm strength has never been his best asset, but you can be a superstar without throwing impossible passes.

Ryan’s intended air yards per pass attempt in 2020 was 8.5, comfortably higher than that of MVP Aaron Rodgers (7.9), who will be among the favorites for the award again in 2021.

The MVP winner usually comes from one of the top teams in the league, so the Falcons will need to make the playoffs. If they do, then it will be on the strength of their offense, though, and Matt Ryan has shown before that he’s good enough.

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