On Thursday, former Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez sat down with ESPN The Magazine‘s Seth Wickersham to reflect on his NFL career. Much of the interview was centered on the Falcons’ disappointing 2013 regular season, one full of injury, criticism and unmet expectations. But one topic covered by the now retired Gonzalez was the overall assessment of his former quarterback Matt Ryan.
Although being close teammates, Gonzalez spilled the beans on how he truly felt about about Ryan’s ability:
“Matt’s an excellent quarterback. But he’s not elite. He’s this close,” says Gonzalez. “He’ll get there, but he has some learning to do.”
I find Gonzalez’s comments about Ryan to be a little surprising, and it also brings up the topic of what makes an elite quarterback. Just a reminder, Gonzalez won his one and only playoff game in his NFL career as a Falcon.
As far as being “close” to that elite level, I will say I can agree with Gonzalez’s statement to a certain extent. So far in Ryan’s career, he has already experienced individual success and shown he has the tangibles. He won the 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, has orchestrated 17 career fourth quarter comebacks and 24 career game-winning drives, and in spite of an injury stricken roster and being sacked a career-high 44 times, Ryan still surpassed Steve Bartkowski as the Falcons’ all-time leader in passing yards and finished in the NFL’s top-10 in terms of QBR. Also, to mention fourth quarter comebacks again, I think Gonzalez forgot how they won against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2012 playoffs. Ryan’s last completion on their fourth quarter game-winning drive was to Gonzalez which then put kicker Matt Bryant in position for the 49-yard field goal to send the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game.
Sadly, it seems like the only way people establish a quarterback as “elite” would be to only see the Super Bowl ring. Another of course would be the playoff wins attached to a QB’s name, but I think being elite is more than just individual success. To me the traits that make an elite quarterback also include being a proven leader and having the right tools. So far those who have been given that “elite” title include: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. Of course, all included are elite because of the hardware they have resting on their fingers.
As for possessing the right tools, I feel Part of Brady’s success is that he has always had a solid offensive line to block for him and a head coach in Bill Belichick to get him to that elite level. Not to discredit Brees’ ability, who has always had an excellent football IQ, but he wouldn’t have that ring on his finger if New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton did not change the culture of the team. And Payton’s absence last season proved that a big part of the Saints’ success came from the head coach. And Manning, not to take away from his extensive knowledge of reading defenses and empowering any NFL offense, but he has had that elite tag for most of his career partly because of a capable offensive line as well, hence the right tools.
And back to playoff success, one can’t use that argument every time. Ryan only has one playoff win because collectively the Falcons still lack that Super Bowl caliber roster, especially on the defensive side. This past season was a testament to that with a subpar offensive line and no pass rush whatsoever. Part of having that elite status is individual effort of course, but the other part of it is having the tools to get you there which is what the current top elite quarterbacks have.
I have always had a lot of respect for Gonzalez, and given his NFL track record he has earned the right to voice his opinions. Also keep in mind Gonzalez, though expressing his belief that Ryan is “not there yet,” also said Ryan is already an excellent quarterback. So I strongly believe Ryan is just a few good pieces away from justifying he is in fact already elite.