Matt Ryan explains exactly what happened in the Falcons' Super Bowl collapse
The reigning MVP is on to 2017 after doing a full autopsy on the one that got away
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's not like Matt Ryan pulled the curtains closed, kept the light at bay, or never left his bed, eating meals brought to him every four hours as he watched bad daytime game shows and simply obsessed about a ring that should have been his, yet somehow got away.
No, it wasn't that bad, but getting over the gut-wrenching overtime loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI last February put the Atlanta Falcons quarterback in a dark place for a while that was tough to escape.
"I wasn't depressed or anything like that," Ryan said. "'In a funk' is the better way to describe it."
Winning a Super Bowl was supposed to be crowning moment of a season that had him sticking his dirty bird out to the legion of vultures that had somehow gathered around his game during his first nine years, picking apart his every move. This was a player who had helped transform the Falcons from a perennial loser into a playoff contender in his first five years in the league, putting up some impressive numbers along the way. Yet there were still many heading into last season who wondered if he was good enough to be a franchise quarterback.
All Ryan did was put up amazing numbers last season while winning the league MVP. And he appeared to be on his way to winning a Super Bowl ring -- the supposed ultimate coronation for quarterback elite -- and would have been the game's MVP if the Falcons had held on and won. Leading by the score of 28-3 in the third quarter, it seemed like a done deal.
Matt Ryan, Super Bowl champ.
Then it fell apart. Not so much for him, but for the Falcons as a team. As you know by now, the Patriots rallied to tie the game and then win it in overtime, giving Tom Brady his fifth ring and keeping Ryan from getting his first.
Shortly after that game, I chatted with Ryan in the bowels of NRG Stadium and he seemed out of it, almost shocked to be standing there after what he had just witnessed. Ryan has always been a stand-up player, win or lose, a player who would take the heat if he didn't play well or the team didn't perform. Sure, he met the media after the Super Bowl, but this was a man with glazed look on his face, almost a zombie look, the one you know if you see it.
"It was bad that day," he said later.
It stayed that way for a while after, too.
Ryan watched the game a few days later, then watched it a second time and even a third. It was cathartic, he said. The first time he watched to see what went wrong. The second time he watched it like a quarterback trying to learn from it.
"I made notes of what we could have done differently and what we did right and wrong," Ryan said.
He was done with it, but Falcons coach Dan Quinn later asked him to watch it one more time. It helped to a certain extent. It was a tough loss, but you can't just sit around and get caught up in it all and let it ruin you moving forward.
"The third time was to just flush it out of the system," Ryan said. "That helped. It was advice I got from people I was close to try and embrace that and deal with it as quickly as possible and start to move on. But, it did take a little longer to get over because we were so close."
Ryan spent a few weeks after the game wallowing in the loss. But then things started to brighten up. His wife, Sarah, helped him get past it.
"She has no time for that," Ryan said. "She puts up with my s--- all during the season. She said, 'It's over. I am not dealing with this. You have to move along.'"
So he did. He went to California to work with his throwing coaches Tom House and Adam Dedeaux. That helped get him on to 2017.
"As I worked, I started to feel better," Ryan said. "Getting back to work is one of the best things you can do to get over it. Doing what you love to do helps, and working to get better is what I love to do."
For the second year, he gathered some of his teammates in South Florida in March to get a head start on offseason work. It was there that Ryan said he knew for sure that he'd moved on, and that those players who came to work with him had done the same.
Anatomy of a collapse
While the loss is behind him, evaluating it is isn't. When a lead is blown like that, big things stand out. It makes it naturally play back in your mind when you are the guy leading the offense, and when reporters and fans keep saying the same thing: if you only did this or that.
There are two situations from that game that stand out, ones that naturally I asked Ryan to discuss.
One came with the Falcons leading 28-12 with 8:31 left in the game. Atlanta faced a third-and-1 from its own 36. Then offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan -- who is now the coach in San Francisco -- called a pass play.
The play was a touchdown, too, as Aldrick Robinson was wide open as Ryan set to unload. One problem: Running back Devonta Freeman whiffed on his assignment, which let linebacker Dont'a Hightower crash into Ryan as he cocked to throw, causing a fumble that the Patriots recovered.
It was an aggressive call for sure -- a run certainly might have been a better option -- and it proved to be a play that turned the momentum clearly in the favor of the Patriots.
"It was either Aldrick sneaking out the back for a touchdown or Julio (Jones) on the cross," Ryan said. "Either way, it's a first down."
It was -- for the Patriots. They took it from there to score to make it 28-20 with the two-point conversion. Even so, the Falcons looked to have the game wrapped up on their next possession.
On a second-and-8 from the Patriots' 49, Ryan threw a high pass to Jones, who made an unreal catch, toe-tapping to get his feet down while extending to grab the ball. It was a 27-yard gain to the New England 22 with 4:40 left in the game. The Falcons were in field-goal range for a kick that would have made it an 11-point lead if good.
"We made the play to win the Super Bowl to Julio," Ryan said.
It should have worked out that way, but what followed was one of the worst clock-management series in the history of the sport -- and that's saying something. With the game on the line, on the biggest stage, it was indeed a how-not-to on how to win a game.
The Falcons ran the ball wide to Freeman on first down for a loss of 1. On second down, they decided to pass. But with a center Alex Mack banged up, Trey Flowers came inside to sack Ryan. Some suggested Ryan could have thrown inside for a quick pass, but my review of the tape shows nobody open. He had no chance. It was a loss of 12.
A holding call on the next play negated a 9-yard completion that would have put them back in field-goal range and then Ryan threw incomplete on third-and-33 from the 45. The Falcons punted and New England took the ball 91 yards on the ensuing drive for a touchdown and scored the two-point play to tie it.
The Falcons could have taken three knees and the Super Bowl was probably theirs to win. Or at least run it right up the middle three times and kick the field goal.
So what happened?
Shanahan got greedy, probably caught up in his battle with Bill Belichick, the greatest coach of all time. Quinn didn't veto the calls -- something he said he will learn from -- and Ryan had no chance to change the plays.
"Kyle's play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in," Ryan said. "As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you're talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, 'There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.' You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.
"With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You're not being aggressive not running it there."
Turning the page
You know how it ended. Brady was propped up, rightfully so, for winning his fifth Super Bowl, while Ryan walked off a mess of a loser. I've known him a long time, and he was as mentally broken after the game as any time in his career.
This was a man stung to his core.
Some of it surely has to do with the way he's perceived. Even after winning the MVP last year, he doesn't seem to get the due he deserves. The doubters call him a playoff failure, even if that's misguided. They praise the offense, but rave about his weapons, almost taking him for granted, or using the fact he has Jones to take a shot at Ryan.
That's why last year's playoff run was so special. In the three postseason games, Ryan averaged 338 yards, threw nine touchdowns and no picks. He completed over 70 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating over 125 in all three games.
The misinformed who try to blame the Super Bowl loss on him need to realize he completed 73.9 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, no picks and a passer rating of 144.1 in that game. Even if you do blame him, Ryan doesn't seem to care, and he isn't sure why there are those who still don't give him the credit he deserves.
"I don't know … I don't worry about it too much," Ryan said. "I think that everybody has their opinions and everybody has their perspective. I know what I am capable of doing. I am confident in my abilities."
This will be his 10th season. He's learned a lot since coming into the league as the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. One thing that has intensified in that time is his drive to be the best.
"I knew how good a player he was because I coached against him," Quinn said. "What I didn't know was how good a competitor he is. This guy is a top competitor. I found that out. And I found out his football smarts are way up there. He's got his s--- together as a man, as a player, as a leader. We're real fortunate that he went from already being a good player to going even further. That's where it gets hard. He took his good game and made it better. That's hard to do. He's ready to go for it again. That's one of the things I most admire about him is his willingness to get a little better every year."
That work helped the Super Bowl sting eventually fade for Ryan. Not go away, just fade.
"There's always going to be a little sting," Ryan said. "You never lose that. Hopefully we've got four Super Bowl victories after this one, but that doesn't mean we won't still be like, 'Damn, let's talk about the other one we should've had."
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