-- Hard as it might be to fathom after Sunday, Matt Ryan entered the 2016 NFL season shooting down reports of a rift with his offensive coordinator following a disappointing first season together. Four months later, Ryan and that same offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, are riding the NFL's highest-scoring offense to the Super Bowl, proving again how quickly and completely fortunes can change.
An MVP-caliber season has changed the public narrative surrounding Ryan's career, as it should. NFL coaches and evaluators can be tougher to persuade.
Ryan ranked 13th in ESPN's 2016 QB Tiers survey last summer, and nine of 42 participating coaches and evaluators gave him especially low marks. What would these same skeptics say after Ryan shredded the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers for 730 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in two dominant postseason performances? Could they deny Ryan a spot in Tier 1 alongside Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger?
Conversations with some of Ryan's harsher critics Sunday night provided some answers.
First, a quick review. Rodgers and Brady were the only unanimous 2016 Tier 1 quarterbacks, defined generally as spelled out below.
Tier 1: Can carry his team each week. Team wins because of him.
Tier 2: Can carry team sometimes but not as consistently.
Tier 3: Legit starter but needs heavy run game/defense to win.
Tier 4: Might not want this guy starting all 16 games.
Tier 5: Do not think this guy should be starting.
Roethlisberger earned enough top-tier votes to join Rodgers and Brady as the Tier 1 quarterbacks heading into 2016. Ryan has been a Tier 2 QB in all three years of the survey, but he was heading in the wrong direction: eighth overall in 2014, 11th in 2015, 13th last year. As one personnel director put it last summer, after Ryan finished the 2015 season with 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, "I haven't completely lost faith in him, but I thought he could be a guy who could tilt the field more. Now, I think he has fallen more in line with the game manager and not a guy who is going to pull it out by himself."
This voter was one of the nine who placed Ryan in the third tier before the season. I reconnected with six of those nine Ryan skeptics Sunday night. All six said they would bump Ryan into the second tier, with some saying he belonged at the front of the Tier 2 line. That is where Cam Newton landed following his 2015 MVP season, when coaches and evaluators said they wanted to see additional outstanding seasons from Newton -- especially without a dominant defense providing a safety net -- before they bumped him into the top tier.
Ryan had no such defense on his side this season. He did have arguably the game's best receiver in Julio Jones, an offensive line reborn with newcomer Alex Mack anchoring it and an offensive scheme that forces teams to account for the run.
"Ryan has bounced up to a 2," said one of the voters who placed the Falcons QB in the third tier before the season. "He has benefited by having Kyle Shanahan there and the talent around him. They would prefer to run it first and have a great play-action game, which they have been able to do. They solidified the front for him. The front has played in every game. He has some guys that can get on top. Julio doesn't have many peers, and Ryan can get to him a lot of different ways. Then, what Kyle sold him on was, he could do all that naked [bootleg] stuff."
The next couple weeks of Super Bowl buildup will uncover various factors that could explain Ryan's revival. We're likely to hear about offseason training regimens, leadership development and mental recalibration. We'll hear about what Mack's signing has meant to the offensive line and to Ryan specifically, how the Falcons have stayed unusually healthy and how having a second offseason in Shanahan's system proved helpful. Which is the reason? Most likely, it's all these things and more coming together at once during a season when some of the other recent NFC powers weren't nearly as formidable.
"Ryan is better than Tier 3, and he's had a great season," another of the skeptical Ryan voters said Sunday, "but take away Julio [Jones], and he might not be the MVP. I think he's very intelligent, with good short and intermediate accuracy. His mobility has been a bonus. He has managed that offense like you would expect your veteran QB to do. Ultimately, like most good QBs with good weapons, if you can't get pressure on him, he has the ability to pick apart the defense."
Another voter who had placed Ryan in the third tier before the season said one play from Ryan's performance Sunday stood out: a third-and-10 pluck pass to receiver Taylor Gabriel in the final minute of the first half. Settling for a field goal could have given Rodgers a scoring chance before halftime. Green Bay was also set to get the ball first in the third quarter. The conversion and Ryan's subsequent scoring pass to Jones sent the Falcons into halftime with a 24-0 lead.
"My hat is off to Ryan because he has done the things necessary to improve his game," this voter said. "He has become a vocal leader. There is risk there when you start doing that. This year, he has really backed it up. I've seen a quarterback who is in perfect unison with the playcaller. He is not extending himself and getting into areas fraught with risk. [Sunday] was an exacerbation of playing at home, where their defense is riding a big tidal wave, and they were able to take advantage of their crowd noise."
Ryan had five turnovers in the red zone during the 2015 season, the third-highest total in the league. He has had just one red zone turnover in 18 games this season. While his stock is obviously rising, voters who resisted placing Newton in the first tier last offseason might do the same with Ryan after one MVP-caliber season.
Andy Dalton was riding a similar wave deep into the 2015 season, before injuries sidelined him and key members of a very talented Cincinnati Bengals supporting cast, wrecking the team's season. Dalton's numbers through 13 games that season matched up quite well against those for Ryan through the same number of games in 2016. It was enough for voters to bump Dalton from the top of the third tier into the bottom of the second -- more of a subtle shift than a fundamental change.
Coaches and evaluators already liked Ryan more than Dalton. They like Ryan more now than ever before. They would also like to see more. A Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots would help, of course, but there is no substitute for sustained excellence across multiple supporting casts and coaching staffs. One voter who has consistently placed Ryan in the second tier sounded like he'd do so again. There's no shame in ranking a couple notches below Brady, Rodgers and even Roethlisberger.
"Ryan has to do it at this level for longer to be talked about that way," this voter said. "Those other two [Rodgers and Brady] are freak-show, gold-jacket guys."
Ryan is, at worst, a solid Tier 2 quarterback enjoying a season any Tier 1 quarterback would happily claim as his own.