Hall of Fame Debates: Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan's Pro Football Hall of Fame portfolio can be summarized as follows:
- NFL MVP in 2016;
- Led the Atlanta Falcons to a conference championship in 2016;
- Led his team to the playoffs five additional times;
- Named to four Pro Bowls (including 2016 of course);
- Very impressive bulk career totals.
In other words, Ryan's portfolio is categorically that of a quarterback who will not be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Don't believe me? Let's check out Boomer Esiason's portfolio:
- NFL MVP in 1988;
- Led the Cincinnati Bengals to a conference championship in 1988;
- Led his team to the playoffs one other time;
- Named to four Pro Bowls.;
- Very impressive bulk career-total statistics. When Esiason retired in 1997, he ranked ninth in all-time passing yards, precisely where Ryan ranks now.
Now, let's check out Steve McNair: 2003 NFL MVP, led the Tennessee Titans to one heartbreaking Super Bowl loss, led the Titans and Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs three other times, was named to three Pro Bowls, and accumulated impressive bulk passing and rushing statistics.
Did someone say Ken Anderson? One MVP award, one Super Bowl loss, four playoff appearances, four Pro Bowls, impressive bulk stats, and the best rate stats of any quarterback of his era. Anderson ranked seventh on the all-time passing yardage list when he retired.
If we ease back on the MVP requirement, we get Donovan McNabb: one Super Bowl loss, seven playoff appearances, six Pro Bowl selections, impressive all-around career stats, and one MVP-caliber year (2004, when Peyton Manning set a new touchdown record and won the award). We also get Drew Bledsoe: one Super Bowl loss as a starter, four Pro Bowls, four playoff appearances (one as a backup, of course), career passing yards that ranked seventh on the all-time list when he retired.
Perhaps we should stick with the MVP requirement though; after all, earning an MVP award is a Hall of Fame type of accomplishment. In that case, let's get nutty with Rich Gannon: 2002 MVP, one Super Bowl appearance, four Pro Bowls, six playoff appearances (three as a starter). Or we can go back to Roman Gabriel, the 1969 MVP who was named to four Pro Bowls, led the Rams to the playoffs twice in the era before wild-card games, and retired eighth on the all-time passing list.
Of the seven quarterbacks just listed, only Anderson is the subject of any serious Hall of Fame discussion, mostly because of his "black ink" accomplishments and role as a West Coast Offense pioneer. Ryan has had a better career than Gannon, of course, and cases can be made that he's better than several of the others just mentioned.
The problem is that Ryan clearly ranks somewhere among this "tier" of Quarterbacks Who Lost Super Bowls and Had One Great and Several Really Good Years, and it's a tier that is unequivocally below the Hall of Fame standard.
Big Stats/No Rings
Dan Marino, of course, also won one MVP award and lost a Super Bowl. Any Matt Ryan for Hall of Fame campaign would likely lean into Ryan's bulk stats and market him as a Big Stats/No Rings guy such as Marino, Dan Fouts, or Warren Moon. Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton are also Big Stats/No Rings guys, but losing multiple Super Bowls is a little different than losing one.
Ryan currently ranks ahead of Fouts and Moon in all-time touchdowns. He's about 1.25 decent 17-game seasons from overtaking Marino in yards. At a bottom-of-the-subreddit level, comparing Ryan to the all-time stat champs currently in the Hall of Fame works. But Football Outsiders readers like you are well aware that passing rates and offensive totals have been increasing steadily for over 40 years. Even a more casual observer can see that Ryan flunks the "black ink test" compared to the others:
- Dan Marino led the NFL in passing yards five times, touchdowns three times and passer rating once.
- Dan Fouts led the NFL in passing yards four times and touchdowns twice.
- Warren Moon led the NFL in passing yards twice and touchdowns once.
- Matt Ryan led the league in passer rating once.
Marino, Fouts and Moon can also lay claim to various "innovator" mantles (as can Anderson, Esiason, and perhaps others on the previous list). Ryan can make no such claim.
It's important to note here that Pro Football Hall of Fame voters are generally unimpressed by bulk stats at most positions on the field. In baseball, 3,000 hits will get you into the Hall of Fame, even if you hang around for six years as a designated hitter to get them. That rarely applies in football, but casual fans have a habit of thinking that all pro sports Halls of Fame are like Cooperstown and that all Hall of Fame arguments are baseball arguments.
Pick any random year and you will find non-Hall of Famers near the top of the quarterback leaderboards. I chose 2002 and found Vinny Testaverde ninth, Dave Kreig 10th, and Esiason 11th among the all-time yardage leaders. Kreig was also eighth in all-time touchdowns that year, Esiason 11th, and Testaverde and John Hadl tied for 12th; the touchdown leaderboard is more durable at the top than the yardage board, but not by much.
And now that the 17-game season is upon us, leaderboard arguments will only get worse. Joe Flacco is currently 19th on the all-time passing yardage list. If all heck breaks loose in Philly, Flacco ends up the starter and throws for 4,000 yards for a team that goes 5-12, he'll move up to 16th, passing Fouts and others (with, dare we say it, a Super Bowl MVP award and ring). And Flacco will stay among the top 20 for years: Russell Wilson should overtake him in 2022, but the next quarterback to pass him (assuming Andy Dalton and Cam Newton are fading fast) is Kirk Cousins, who is years away.
Bottom line: no one who takes Hall of Fame discussions seriously is going to take the all-time passing leaderboards seriously for a long time, especially since the Brady/Brees types at the very top will enter the Hall of Fame without discussion.
If I were trying to craft a serious Hall of Fame argument for Ryan, my goal would be to breathe life into seasons like 2013 to 2015 and 2018 to 2020. No no no, Hall of Fame Committee, I would argue, Ryan wasn't just racking up big numbers on weak teams. He was doing something unique and special.
That's a tough argument to sell. Unlike McNabb, McNair, or Gabriel, Ryan didn't spend his career with weak receiving corps and/or conservative coaches. Instead, Ryan spent most of his career throwing to Hall of Famers (Tony Gonzalez, probably Julio Jones) and other impressive receivers (Roddy White, Calvin Ridley).
The Falcons often fielded some miserable defenses over the last few years, but it's hard to claim that the organization was holding Ryan back in some way when they built two separate playoff nuclei. Perhaps 2018 was a stealth Hall of Fame-caliber season: 35 touchdowns and 4,924 yards for a Steve Sarkisian offense and a 7-9 team that lost by scores of 43-37 and 37-36. But it's hard to drag any of Ryan's other non-Pro Bowl seasons across the finish line.
Football Outsiders stats, which are not designed for Hall of Fame debates, would be of little help to Ryan's case. Ryan led the NFL in DVOA and DYAR in 2016. He finished in the top 10 in DYAR 10 times and the top 10 in DVOA nine times. That's impressive at first blush, but not particularly compelling, especially because Ryan had a habit of finishing fifth through ninth in both categories. "Fifth- to ninth-best quarterback in the NFL for over a decade" isn't exactly a rallying cry.
A Ryan Hall of Fame argument could be Frankensteined together by pointing out that he was statistically better than most of the quarterbacks such as McNabb who had similar playoff/Pro Bowl profiles but had better playoff accomplishments than guys who played forever and ended up near the top of leaderboards (Krieg, Testaverde). Also, he was cut off from the league yardage and touchdown titles, plus most of the trophies, by Brees, Brady, Rodgers, and others for nearly all of his career.
Again, pointing out that Ryan wasn't nearly as good as several of his contemporaries is an odd way to frame his Hall of Fame candidacy, but that's what we're down to.
Even that mish-mosh argument threads a very fine needle. Ryan may retire at about the same time as Rodgers and (heck) Brady, one or two years after Ben Roethlisberger, and possibly with Eli Manning still on the finalist ballot. (We'll get to Eli another time. Have patience.) By the time Ryan is eligible for the ballot, Russell Wilson's career will be winding down, and heaven only knows how many yards Patrick Mahomes will be throwing for each season. Under those circumstances, would anyone really find a "Ryan was maybe the fifth-best quarterback of his generation if you weigh the evidence a certain way" all that compelling?
Hall of Fair to Middling
Ryan could still have a late career surge, lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl, and punch his ticket to Canton, of course. But based on what we have seen so far, his Hall of Fame candidacy died on February 5, 2017, when the Falcons blew a you-know-what-to-you-know-what lead against you-know-who in Super Bowl LI.
It may not be fair to judge Ryan based on what his team did in one game. But it's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Fair. It's for guys who helped their teams hold onto Super Bowl leads, or whose fourth-quarter comebacks in championship games (2012) didn't stall at the 10-yard line, or guys who didn't get stoned on a pair of quarterback sneaks (2011) and held to zero offensive points in a playoff game they were favored to win. Barring that, it's for guys who led the NFL in touchdowns or yards a few times or changed the way we think about the quarterback position.
Barring some resurgence, Ryan simply will not make the cut for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But at least he's in good company among the likes of Esiason, McNair, and McNabb: great players who shouldn't have to apologize for their Super Bowl losses.