Thursday, January 24, 2013

NFC Championship Runback: Did Matt Ryan Really Choke?

San Francisco 49ers 28
Atlanta Falcons 24

I suppose the best way to explain this game to someone is to have them re-watch last week’s Seahawks-Falcons game, except instead of having them view it in real time, you’d hit the “2x speed” button on your DVR. Indeed, the first half of Sunday’s NFC Championship showdown was eerily similar to Atlanta’s Divisional Round win, complete with the blazing fast start, the out-of-nowhere collapse, and the heroic last minute score. There’s just one slight difference between the two games. One teeny, tiny, almost insignificant difference…an entire half of football.

Boy what a difference it was. The Falcons went from “Greatest Show on Turf” caliber offense to being completely shut out, while the previously lifeless 49ers played like their water bottles and Gatorade coolers had been replaced with dozens of cases of Red Bull. Either that or a very angry (and very terrifying) Jim Harbaugh threatened to kill each player’s family if they let this crappy Falcons team reach the Super Bowl. I’m betting on the latter, but hey, that’s just me!

So what really happened in this game? What changed from the first 15+ minutes that saw Atlanta treat San Francisco’s vaunted defense like their scout team D, to the remaining 45 minutes where the complete opposite happened? As always, there are a zillion possible explanations, ranging from the simple (San Francisco is better and they started playing better), to the complex (adjustments to coverage schemes, formations, routes, etc.), to the absurd (Matt Ryan is an innate choker and was destined to lose). While I’ll never be able to explain/understand exactly what happened in the game based on my one television viewing, there were a couple things I noted.

The most obvious narrative coming out of the game is that of Matt Ryan being a ‘choker.’ To that, I can only say…ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Granted, his play in the second half was fairly mediocre, but it’s not as if he pulled a “Romo” and went off the deep end. The fumbled snap is certainly a head scratcher, but let’s be honest about that interception – Roddy White fell down! How is that Matt Ryan’s fault?! HIS RECEIVER FELL DOWN ON A ROUTE THEY’D BEEN KILLING SAN FRANCISCO ON ALL DAY!

Anyways, even if you refuse to acknowledge logic and want to criticize him for the INT, his numbers are still outstanding and speak for themselves. 30/42 passing, 396 YDS, and 3 TD’s would be eye-popping against even the lowly Panthers, and the 49ers are certainly NOT the Panthers. For some perspective on how incredible Ryan was, here is a snapshot of how the ‘Niners pass defense performed this season:

Opponent Completion % -- 59.1%
Opponent Y/A – 6.1
Opponent TD/game – 1.2
Opponent QB Rating – 78.0
Opponent Yards/game – 200

Ryan easily bested those marks, nearly doubling up the 49ers typical Y/G allowed total. There’s no question, Ryan was fantastic on Sunday, putting the offense on his back and repeatedly torching one of the league’s best secondaries despite a complete no show by Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. Moreover, he put together two extremely impressive ‘clutch’ drives, the first of which netted Atlanta a key TD to end the first half, and the second of which would have won the game if not for a terrific play by Ahmad Brooks on third down. Even though they fell 10 yards short, there was nothing ‘chokey’ about Matt Ryan’s play.

“So, if he didn’t choke, how can you explain the Falcons sudden downturn in offense?”

At first glance, it’s not an easy thing to comprehend. The Falcons offense was so incredibly dominant early in the game, racking up 202 yards of offense, posting 17 points, and accruing over 11 minutes of possession…all in the first quarter! One huge factor in amassing these totals was Atlanta’s early success on third downs, both in converting them and in preventing the 49ers from converting them. Here are four key first quarter plays that highlight this:

12:55     3rd and 9 on the ATL 37 – Matt Ryan complete to Roddy White for 16 yards, first down
10:03     3rd and 9 on the SF 21 – Colin Kaepernick incomplete to Vernon Davis
5:38     3rd and 10 on the 50 – Matt Ryan complete to Julio Jones for 27 yards, first down
2:28    3rd and 4 on the SF 26 – Colin Kaepernick sacked by Corey Peters for -9 yards

In both of Atlanta’s first two drives, they faced third and long in non-scoring range against the league’s #3 third down defense. And in both situations, they converted via completions deep down the field, putting them in prime scoring position and coming out with 10 points in their first two drives. Meanwhile, the 49ers were unable to convert on either of their first two third down tries. The result was that Atlanta got the ball back just 1 minute and 41 seconds after their first score, and just 1 minute and 23 seconds after their second. If San Francisco had been able to get just one third down stop, or even just convert that 3rd and 4, Atlanta’s massive early lead might never have materialized. The line between success and failure in the NFL is extremely thin.

This was, of course, the high water mark for the Falcons. From here, the defense – not Matt Ryan – would repeatedly let Atlanta down. They allowed three consecutive scoring drives (TD’s) of 76 or more yards, and would have allowed a fourth straight score (not of 76 yards) if not for untimely death of David Akers early this fall…and then a fifth straight score if Michael Crabtree hadn’t fumbled at the half yard line! To put it bluntly, the Falcons defense stunk! This, of course, is no surprise to many of us. Prince and I have been chirping about how horrible their defense was all year, so it’s no shock to see a team like the 49ers expose them. San Fran faced just three actual third downs the rest of the game, ran for over five yards a pop, and passed it for over ten yards per toss. Basically, it was a prison shower scene for three quarters.

And yet, somehow this is Matt Ryan’s fault. Honestly, I don’t get that. Thanks to the defenses inability to get San Francisco off the field, Atlanta had just six possessions after the first quarter. None of those drives started at better than the ATL 28. One of those drives started at the ATL 1! Despite this, the offense actually remained fairly productive. Four of those drives pushed into SF territory. Two went for 70 or more yards. Yet, only one ended in a score. What happened to the other drives?

Roddy White fell down on his route, resulting in an INT on the SF 47.

Matt Ryan dropped a perfectly good snap on the SF 28.

Ahmad Brooks bats down the game winning TD on 3rd and 4, and Roddy White is unable to haul in a first down pass on 4th and 4. Or, if you prefer, you can mention how Harry Douglas somehow fell flat on his face with the game winning TD floating softly his way.

This is yet another case where the narrative just doesn’t match up with the actual facts. If any one of  those things happens differently – if Roddy White stays on his feet and hauls in a first down, or if Ahmad Brooks jumps a half second later, or if Douglas doesn’t run like a one year old – then we’re probably dealing with an entirely different story. We’d be talking about how heroic Matt Ryan is, how the 49ers choked two years in a row, and how switching to Kaepernick might have killed the team. Instead, Ryan is taking the brunt of the blame for an ineffective defense despite playing as good a game as I’ve seen anyone play against the 49ers.

It’s not right, and people should look at the actual facts. Matt Ryan made just one real mistake against a team that typically forces a lot of mistakes. He carried a Falcons offense that got zero help from the running game. Is he supposed to go out there and make tackles, too? In the end, it took a heroic effort from him to even have a chance to win that game, because if the last three quarters told us anything, it’s that the 49ers are way better than the Falcons.


  1. Thank you for mentioning Harry Douglas!! Nobody here in ATL is talking about that! Not to mention that part where he didn't even CATCH the ball! Inexcusable, when you're as wide open as he was.

    Great write-up, I couldn't agree more. I tweeted it as soon as I got home from the game, Matt Ryan earned so much more respect from me after watching him in person in this game. I believe that this season, he officially solidified his status as a true top-level QB in the league (no way you'll ever get me to use the "E" word, I'd rather slit my own throat than ever use that stupid word). Of course, if some of these new dual-threat QBs keep it up, how we evaluate QB play at its very essence could all change.

    You wouldn't believe some of the questions I'm hearing on ATL radio these last few days. I nearly drove my car straight into a pole when I heard, on one of the top shows here, "Is Matt Ryan capable of taking this team to the Super Bowl?" asked yesterday to callers. Not even WIN, just take them TO the SB!!!! HE CAME WITHIN 1 PLAY!!! Or, as you illustrated, you could look at SEVERAL plays that would have done it! I can't do it anymore, Jon, I can't listen to sports media.

    The only thing I will say about the whole 'choker' thing is that that fumble really was bad. No, it absolutely should not take away from all that he accomplished that day and all season, but for those out there who have been waiting to pounce on the choker story (which, in the past, has seemed plausible), he just gave them another gem to hang on to for one more year. But after seeing what he did ONE WEEK EARLIER with 30 seconds left and the season on the line, it's ludicrous to then dwell on the fumble.

  2. Yeah, the fumble was bad. I kept watching replays waiting to see something I previous missed, but no, he just dropped a perfectly good snap. Also, I think the reason people aren't as hung up on the Harry Douglas gaffe is because that TD would have left, I believe, more than 2 minutes for San Francisco. Given how things had been going, I feel confident in saying the 49ers would have scored with general ease.