Sage Rosenfels is a former 12-year NFL quarterback who writes, does radio, and podcasts about the NFL and college football.
Every week, I write about quarterbacks. While I try to spread the love around the league and focus on a different guy each week, there have been times when I have no choice but to cover someone more than once. This week, that someone is Matt Ryan.
The last time I covered Ryan, I lightly discussed his talents and how he was having success in his second year under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Today, I’d like to dive more deeply into that connection. I believe the relationship of a quarterback and an offensive coordinator is extremely unique. In many ways, it’s like a marriage. Two people have to match up perfectly in a multitude of ways but also complement each other to improve on weaknesses. Other than Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels up in New England, this is the best QB-OC marriage in football.
I was lucky enough to play in the NFL for 12 seasons. You could say it was a burden that I played for five franchises and under nine different offensive coordinators. You read that right, nine different offenses. While many of them are similar, every OC has their own ideas and tendencies which make them unique. I don’t believe I played in an offense which did a better job of using my talents and those of my teammates than the one run by Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan has had a chance to learn from some of the best offensive and defensive coaches in football during his time in the NFL. While many would think most of this knowledge comes from his father, Mike, they aren’t looking deep enough.
Kyle first got into the NFL as a quality control assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Jon Gruden. In Tampa, he learned about the most traditional concepts of the west coast offense. Also, Gruden was obsessed with using multiple shifts and formations to run these old-school pass patterns. You can ask Brad Johnson, Jeff Garcia, Brian Griese, or Chris Simms, and they’ll be happy to let you know how much time was put into memorizing all the different formations in the game plan each week. In staff meetings, Shanahan had a chance to learn from Monte Kiffin, a legend in the NFL coaching ranks and the godfather of the Tampa 2 defense. Kiffin’s precise detail in regards to philosophy and technique was a daily lesson on the science of the game. Every coverage has a strength and weakness, and Shanahan was a sponge for this type of detail.
After Tampa, Kyle moved on to Houston, where he was our receivers coach in 2006, quarterbacks coach in 2007, and OC in 2008. I was lucky enough to see him coach at all levels on offense. In 2006, I saw how well he connected with our receiver group. Having played the position in college at the University of Texas, Kyle understood the challenges of the position. He was also young enough to relate to the players. His coaching style was real and raw, and the players respected it. As he moved up to QB coach and then OC, you could see his desire to be in control of an offense and have his ideas go to work. While Gary Kubiak, the head coach, was still calling most of the plays in 2008, that responsibility shifted more and more to Shanahan. By the end of the year, it was his offense.
What I loved about Kyle’s offense was his ability to mix these tried-and-true concepts he learned from Gruden with Kubiak’s zone running game/play action and bootleg ideas. Then he added something extra. Kyle understood what players did well from a physical standpoint. Our skill position players – Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels, Joel Dreessen, David Anderson, and Jacoby Jones – all had very different skill sets, and he did an unbelievable job of drawing up formations and plays to take advantage of them. Every play had a rhyme and reason as to who we were attacking on defense and what our personnel advantage was on offense. If you look at his call sheet, it’s not just plays and formations. It’s also who’s in the game and where each player should be located to take advantage of either a matchup or coverage. The preparation and detail was unbelievable.
After some interesting years in Washington and Cleveland, where talent at the quarterback position was lacking, Shanahan has found the perfect home in Atlanta. This brings us back to Matt Ryan and this offense. Ryan is without a doubt the best quarterback Shanahan has worked with in the NFL. Julio Jones is also a player with a skill set so similar to recently retired receiver Andre Johnson that it’s scary when you watch him play. The running game in Atlanta also matches the one that’s led Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak to countless successful season over the last 20-plus years. His play action off that run game is more creative each week.
Against the Packers on Sunday, with Julio Jones ailing from a second-quarter sprained ankle, Ryan and Shanahan found other weapons. Mohamed Sanu became the premier target and made several clutch catches. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Terron Ward were dual threats out of the backfield. Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper combined for eight catches and more than 100 yards. Jacob Tamme and Justin Hardy contributed. Despite the fact that Jones is the best wide receiver in football, Shanahan had plenty of other weapons in his arsenal to defeat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Pulling the trigger is Matt Ryan. Over the course of his eight NFL seasons, he’s been one of the quarterbacks on the edge of the “elite” conversation. Most believed he was a very good player – definitely a franchise quarterback – but shouldn’t be thrown into the conversation with Rodgers, Brees, the Mannings, Big Ben, or even Russell Wilson. He seemed to be relegated to the group just below.
After multiple offensive coordinators and a generally below average defense, Ryan has joined the MVP and elite NFL quarterback conversations. His defense is playing better each week under the direction of head coach Dan Quinn. But his offense has taken a huge jump in its second year under Shanahan. While Ryan and this Falcons offense were strong in 2015, they’ve been on fire this season. Last year, the downfall of Atlanta’s offense was brought on by too many turnovers (Ryan threw 16 interceptions) and a handful of key throws that were barely missed. With a full offseason to study those miscues and sharpen the throws he struggled with in 2015, Ryan has entered into the world of the NFL’s best.
After eight games this season, he’s on pace to throw for 5,300 yards, 38 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Those numbers are just silly, and would win him the MVP award. Ryan has everything a good coordinator is looking for in a quarterback. He’s extremely accurate, has a strong arm, is very smart, is a leader in the locker room, rarely gets hurt, and has a competitive fire that elevates everyone on his team. Now, he has the right coordinator to match these attributes. This Atlanta offense is as good as any in the NFL, but it didn’t happen overnight. If you look at the long history before Matt Ryan and Shanahan started working together last year, you can see why. These two have been waiting their entire careers to find their perfect partner. It looks like it’s a match made in heaven, and both partners are blossoming.
- Tom Brady: Can you win the NFL MVP award after serving a four-game suspension for cheating?
- Derek Carr: Natural ability was never a question. His mental capacity and ability to win close ball games have pushed him into the MVP conversation out of nowhere.
- Russell Wilson: While he has always been a very good pocket passer, the Seahawks are missing his ability to create when things break down. His ankle is the key to their season.