Unless it’s the next practice or the next game. A day ahead, a week ahead, he’ll go there. But whether Ryan thinks he’ll be back next season? Speculating is useless and does nothing but clutter his mind, so why bother?
“There will be time for that at some point, but we’ve got [nine] games to go,” Ryan said. “We’ve got some good football teams that we’ve got to play, some really good defenses in front of me. I think that if I worry about what’s going to happen in four months, five months from now as opposed to getting ready for the [opponent] this week, I’m not giving our team the best chance to win, and so I don’t go there.
“I focus on what’s in front of me, and I think that’s one of the perks of being a veteran is that you’ve gone through a lot of different things in your career, and it hardens you and made you better for it. You’ve learned what works for you, and worrying about that kind of stuff doesn’t work for me. Focusing on this week does, and that’s what I’m going to continue to try and do.”
He might not spend time thinking about it, but Ryan’s future is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — issues for the Falcons in the next six months. Once a new general manager and head coach are in place, their first decision will be whether to stick with the 35-year-old Ryan to try to squeeze a few more productive years out of the franchise’s all-time leading passer — or to move on.
It’s not an easy decision, and for more reasons than Ryan’s contract, which includes salary-cap figures of $40 million-plus and significant dead-money figures the next two seasons.
First, let’s get this out of the way: Ryan might not be playing at the level he did in 2016 when he was the league’s MVP, but he’s pretty darn close. He leads the NFL in passing yards (2,181) and has thrown 12 touchdown passes to only three interceptions, and he’s actually averaging more passing yards per game (311.6) than he did in 2016 (309).
Ryan has thrown for 709 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in the Falcons’ past two games, including a season-high 371 yards and four TDs in their victory over Minnesota two weeks ago. That was Atlanta’s only win this season, which is why the Falcons are searching for a new GM and head coach.
Despite that, Ryan is playing well enough to win games. The defense, however, isn’t. The Falcons rank 31st in total defense and pass defense and have given up a league-high 19 touchdown passes, which is one of the main reasons the team is 1-6 heading into Thursday’s game against the Carolina Panthers (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox).
“You could still win a bunch of games with Matt. He’s not the problem in Atlanta,” ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “But you could also justify — I think this is the case for a couple veteran quarterbacks — you could justify them deciding, ‘You know what? It’s time for us to move on and start anew,’ and it has more to do with everyone else but the quarterback.”
That’s the case now, but it might be irrelevant to a new regime, and owner Arthur Blank said earlier this month that he was going to let the next GM and head coach decide whether Ryan stays. They may be leery about relying on a quarterback who will turn 36 in May, especially if things continue in the direction they’re headed and the Falcons own a top-five draft pick. Per ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Falcons are currently fourth in the draft order.
That would put them in position to draft a quarterback. They wouldn’t be able to get Georgia native and Clemson star Trevor Lawrence unless they either traded up or somehow ended up with the No. 1 pick; there’s significant competition, because there are 12 other teams with two or fewer victories, including the entire NFC East. But Ohio State’s Justin Fields (another Georgia native) and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, among others, are certainly in play.
It’s not out of the question Ryan could end up in a Brett Favre–Aaron Rodgers or Rodgers-Jordan Love situation. Or maybe even doing what Ryan Fitzpatrick did in Miami, holding on to the spot until a rookie is ready.
“It’s very simple for me: If they’ve got a top-five pick, they’re more than likely moving on from Matt,” Orlovsky said. “I would imagine the new head coach that they hire is going to want their quarterback, and there’s going to be three coming out this year that are going to be really, really, really intriguing guys. If they have the seventh, eighth, ninth pick of the draft, I can see them going, ‘OK, we’re going to keep Matt’ and try to make a little bit more of a build-around-him, so to speak.”
That could be a smart approach because Ryan shows no signs age is catching up to him. He’s on pace for a career-high 4,985 yards, and he could tie Peyton Manning‘s NFL record for 10 consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. That kind of consistency is remarkable, but also unsurprising if you’ve been around Ryan for a while.
“That’s a given,” teammate Julio Jones said. “As long as you’re where you need to be for Matt, he’s going to deliver the ball. That’s our job, just to be open in the time of the play, and Matt delivers us the ball anywhere.”
Here’s the thing about moving on from Ryan and starting anew, if that’s what the new regime were to decide: It’s going to be very, very costly. Ryan and the Falcons agreed to a five-year, $150 million contract extension that included $100 million guaranteed. The contract runs through the 2023 season and includes salary-cap figures of $40.9 million and $41.7 million over the next two seasons. Those are the second-highest cap figures for quarterbacks in 2021 and 2022.
The dead money hits in 2021 are astronomical: $49.9 million if he’s cut before June 1 and $23.4 million if he’s cut after June 1; $44.4 million if he’s traded before June 1 and $17.9 million if he’s traded after June 1 (which would save the Falcons $23 million).
A trade this season, by the way, would be a little more economical, but ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last Saturday per sources that the Falcons will not trade Ryan or Jones before the Nov. 3 deadline.
So, essentially, Ryan is in limbo. He’s playing well, but the team isn’t winning and he has no idea who’s going to be in charge next year — or where he’ll be taking snaps. That is why he’s not spending any time thinking about 2021.
It would be, he said again, a waste of time.
“You know, I don’t worry about that stuff,” he said. “I don’t think about it. My job is to get dialed in for Thursday night. I’ve said it all along: I love Atlanta. I want to be here. I want to be a part of this organization, but I don’t worry about noise outside our building.
“I try and focus on week to week getting myself ready to go. I’ve said it. I want to be here, and hopefully that’ll be the case.”