ATLANTA — After 14 seasons and becoming the best quarterback in franchise history, the Atlanta Falcons are moving on from Matt Ryan.
Atlanta traded Ryan on Monday to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen and Dianna Russini.
Ryan will become the fifth starting quarterback to start for Colts head coach Frank Reich in as many seasons. The Colts moved on from Carson Wentz after the 2021 season, trading him to the Washington Commanders for third-round picks in 2022 and 2023.
Conversations about Ryan’s departure picked up at the start of the new league year, when the Falcons became part of the group of teams inquiring about trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson. Higher-ups throughout Atlanta’s organization met with Watson, a Gainesville, Georgia native, and tried to lure him to the Falcons despite 22 open civil suits ranging from inappropriate conduct to sexual assault against female massage therapists.
As part of that pursuit, the Falcons and Ryan pushed back a $7.5 million roster bonus originally due March 18 back five days to Monday to both let the Watson courtship play out and allow Ryan to seek out trade partners. Watson ended up waiving his no-trade clause to go to Cleveland, but it also put the Falcons in a position where it had very publicly sought out a succession plan for Ryan.
The trade will leave a dead-money chart of $40.525 million on the Falcons’ salary cap this season.
Weeks earlier, during Super Bowl week, Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the team had contemplated a succession plan for Ryan the past couple of seasons, but had yet to have one. Pursuing Watson clearly became one succession option. Now the Falcons will have to push that plan further.
Once the season was over, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith continually praised Ryan but stopped short of committing to him to being the team’s quarterback in 2022 — continuously saying he didn’t want to back himself into a corner despite how much he respects the veteran leader.
“There’s not many guys like Matt that can operate the level he does,” Smith said. “The leadership, the real leadership that goes on behind the scenes. The way he prepares. He’s the same guy every day. That’s a huge compliment to him.”
Ryan, meanwhile, made it clear in January he hoped to stay with the club for his 15th season – something he’d said every time he’d been asked about it for months. He believed in Smith, in what they were building and what they did with the roster they had.
The 36-year-old Ryan — he turns 37 in May — had been a stalwart for the Falcons since been drafted No. 3 overall in the 2008 draft by the club, the player the Falcons hoped would be the next franchise quarterback following Michael Vick, who the team moved on from following a dogfighting scandal that sent him to prison.
Almost immediately, Ryan proved to be a good selection. His first pass was a touchdown — 62 yards to Michael Jenkins — and he ended up as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008. The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Ryan had been one of the team’s leaders since, a durable player at the most important position in sports.
In 14 years in Atlanta, he missed only three games — two in 2009 and one in 2019. He threw for at least 4,000 yards every season from 2011 until last season, when he threw for 3,968 yards. He’s had at least 20 touchdown passes every year since his rookie season in 2008, when he had 16.
Ryan made the Pro Bowl four times with the Falcons, but no season was more impressive than 2016, where Ryan completed 69.9% of his passes for a career-high 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player that season and led Atlanta to Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots. That Super Bowl will be one of his lasting legacies with the Falcons. Atlanta held a 28-3 lead over the Patriots in the third quarter, but ended up losing in overtime, 34-28.
Ryan made the playoffs the following year, in 2017, but the Falcons have not had a winning record at any point since.
In those four seasons, Ryan has been sacked 40 or more times in each of those seasons. He rarely has had competent defenses around him over the past four seasons and last year played with a roster that saw the trade of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley miss three-quarters of the season due to mental health issues and Russell Gage injured for a quarter of the season.
Four straight losing seasons combined with a massive contract — Ryan had a cap hit of over $48 million — made Ryan a player potentially expendable. And now, like so many of his contemporaries — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson — he’ll finish his career somewhere other than where it started.