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 more times;
- Named for four Pro Bowls (including 2016 of course);
- Very impressive overall career.
In other words, Ryan’s portfolio is categorically the one of a quarterback who will does not be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Do not believe me? Let’s look at Boomer Esiason’s portfolio:
- NFL MVP in 1988;
- Led the Cincinnati Bengals to a 1988 Conference Championship;
- Led his team to the playoffs another time;
- Named for four Pro Bowls .;
- Very impressive bulk-career-total stats. When Esiason retired in 1997, he ranked ninth in all-time passing yards, exactly where Ryan ranks now.
Now let’s look at Steve McNair: the 2003 NFL MVP, led the Tennessee Titans to a 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 stats.
Did anyone say Ken Anderson? One MVP award, one Super Bowl loss, four playoff appearances, four Pro Bowls, impressive bulk stats and the best rate stats for any quarterback of his era. Anderson ranked seventh on the all-time passing list when he retired.
If we get away with the MVP requirement, we get Donovan McNabb: a Super Bowl loss, seven playoff appearances, six Pro Bowl picks, impressive all-around career statistics and an MVP caliber year (2004, when Peyton Manning set a new touchdown record and won the award). We also get Drew Bledsoe: a Super Bowl loss as a starter, four Pro Bowls, four playoff appearances (one as a backup, of course), a career passing yards that ranks seventh on the all-time list when he retired.
Maybe we should stick to the MVP requirement though; earning an MVP award is, after all, a Hall of Fame form of achievement. If so, let’s get nutty with Rich Gannon: 2002 MVP, a Super Bowl look, four Pro Bowls, six playoff appearances (three as a starter). Or we can go back to Roman Gabriel, the 1969 MVP who was named four Pro Bowls, led rams to the playoffs twice in the pre-wild card game era, and retired eighth on the list of existing times.
Of the seven quarterbacks just mentioned, only Anderson is the subject of a serious Hall of Fame discussion, largely because of his “black ink” performance and role as a West Coast Offensive pioneer. Ryan has, of course, had a better career than Gannon, and cases can be made that he is better than several of the others just mentioned.
The problem is that Ryan clearly ranks somewhere within this “level” of Quarterbacks who lost the Super Bowls and had a good and several really good years, and it is a level that is unequivocally below the Hall of Fame standard.
Great stats / no calls
Of course, Dan Marino also won an MVP award and lost a Super Bowl. Any Matt Ryan for Hall of Fame campaign would probably lean into Ryan’s bulk stats and market him as a Big Stats / No Rings guy like Marino, Dan Fouts, or Warren Moon. Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton are also Big Stats / No Rings guys, but losing several Super Bowls is a little different than losing one.
Ryan is currently ahead of Fouts and Moon in all-time touchdowns. He is 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 state 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 steadily rising for over 40 years. Even a more casual observer can see that Ryan slips the “black ink test” compared to the others:
- Dan Marino led the NFL in passing yards five times, touchdowns three times and passing rating once.
- Dan Fouts led the NFL in passing four times and touchdowns twice.
- Warren Moon led the NFL in passing twice and touchdowns once.
- Matt Ryan once led the league in passer rating.
Marino, Fouts, and Moon may also invoke various “innovator” cloaks (like Anderson, Esiason, and perhaps others on the previous list). Ryan cannot make any such claim.
It is important to note here that Pro Football Hall of Fame voters are generally not impressed with bulk stats at most positions on the field. In baseball, 3,000 hits will bring you into the Hall of Fame, even if you hang around for six years as a designated hitter to get them. This is rarely the case in football, but casual fans have a habit of believing that all professional Halls of Fame are like Cooperstown and that all Hall of Fame arguments are baseball arguments.
Pick any random year and you will not find the Hall of Famers near the top of the quarterback rankings. 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; Touchdown Leaderboard is more durable at the top than yardage board, but not 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 4,000 yards to a team going 5-12, he moves up to 16th, passes Fouts and others (with, dare we say it, a Super Bowl MVP award) and ring). And Flacco will remain among the top 20 for years: Russell Wilson should overtake him in 2022, but the next quarterback to pass him (provided Andy Dalton and Cam Newton fade quickly) is Kirk Cousins, who is years away.
Bottom line: no one who takes Hall of Fame discussions seriously will take the all-time passing rankings seriously for a long time, especially since the Brady / Brees types at the top will enter the Hall of Fame without discussion.
If I were trying to create 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 didn’t just put big numbers on weak teams. He did something unique and special.
It’s a tough argument to sell. Unlike McNabb, McNair or Gabriel, Ryan did not spend his career with weak receiving corps and / or conservative coaches. Instead, Ryan spent most of his career throwing to the Hall of Famers (Tony Gonzalez, probably Julio Jones) and other impressive recipients (Roddy White, Calvin Ridley).
The Falcons have often put up some lousy defenses over the last few years, but it’s hard to argue that the organization held Ryan back somehow as they built two separate playoff cores. Perhaps 2018 was an insidious 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 pull any of Ryan’s other non-Pro Bowl seasons across the finish line.
Football Outsider’s statistics, 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 top 10 in DVOA nine times. It’s impressive at first blush, but not very convincing, especially since Ryan had a habit of finishing fifth to ninth in both categories. “Fifth to ninth best quarterback in the NFL in over a decade” is not exactly a contraction.
A Ryan Hall of Fame argument Frankensteined could put together by pointing out that he was statistically better than most quarterbacks like McNabb, who had similar playoff / Pro Bowl profiles, but had better playoff performance than guys who played forever and ended up close to the top of rankings (Krieg, Testaverde). He was also cut off from league yardage and touchdown titles plus most trophies by Brees, Brady, Rodgers and others throughout almost his entire career.
Again, pointing out that Ryan was nowhere near as good as several of his contemporaries is a strange way to hit his Hall of Fame candidacy, but that’s what we’re down to.
Even the mish-mosh argument threads a very fine needle. Ryan may retire at about the same time as Rodgers and (heck) Brady, a year or two after Ben Roethlisberger, and possibly with Eli Manning still on the finalist’s poll. (We’ll come to Eli’s another time. Be patient.) Once Ryan is eligible to vote, Russell Wilson’s career will be settled, and heaven knows only how many yards Patrick Mahomes will throw for each season. Under any circumstances, would anyone really find a “Ryan perhaps the fifth best quarterback of his generation if you weigh the proof in a certain way” all that compelling?
Hall of Fair to Middling
Ryan could still have a late career rise, lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl and, of course, beat his ticket to Canton. But based on what we’ve 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 leadership against you-know-who in Super Bowl LI.
It might not be fair to judge Ryan by what his team did in a game. But it’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Fair. It’s for guys who helped their team keep the Super Bowl leader, or if fourth-quarter comebacks in championship games (2012) didn’t stop at the 10-yard line, or guys who weren’t stoned on a pair of quarterback snipers (2011) ) and held to zero offensive points in a playoff, they were favored to win. Exclusively, 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.
Excluding a certain resurgence, Ryan simply will not cut for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But at least he’s in good company with people like Esiason, McNair and McNabb: big players who should not apologize for their Super Bowl losses.