A lot of analysis was wasted in the lead-up to the NFC Championship game. There was so much non-relevant chatter: about the Falcons’ two exciting running backs; about the Packers’ great offensive line; about the health of the Packers’ receivers; about the need for a better pass rush by the Packers. None of it mattered a whit.
Here’s what mattered: Matt Ryan’s passing prowess, the Falcons’ receiver talent, the Packers’ woeful defensive backs, and the Falcons’ passing scheme.
Matt Ryan was great, as he’s been all season, which is why he’ll win the NFL’s MVP award.
Julio Jones proved yet again he’s the league’s best receiver.
The Packers’ pass coverage was no better, nor worse, than it was for most of the season. It just looked worse because a top-notch offense exploited it more devastatingly than did other teams.
That leaves the Falcons’ passing scheme as a final factor to be considered.
Kyle Shanahan Arrives in Atlanta
Kyle Shanahan is a man going places. At age 37, he’s been in the NFL since 2004. After jobs with the Bucs and Texans, he became the Redskins’ offensive coordinator in 2010.
Then came a rough patch. He and his father, coach Mike Shanahan, were fired by the Redskins after the 2013 season. Kyle then moved on to the Browns, but he resigned after one year after disagreeing with the front office’s insistence that rookie Johnny Manziel be the starting QB.
He was quickly nabbed by Atlanta, where he’s been the offensive coordinator for the past two years.
While Matt Ryan has been a good quarterback since joining the league in 2008, he has only achieved greatness under Shanahan’s guidance. After never having a triple-digit passer rating in a season, Ryan busted out with a rating of 117.2 on the year, the fifth highest seasonal rating since the formula was made the NFL’s official QB rating system in 1973.
In his two recent postseason games, Ryan has upped the ante: 125.7 against the Seahawks and now 139.4 against the hapless Packers.
The Ryan-Shanahan pairing seems a match made in heaven. The key feature of this West Coast offensive variant is the quarterback’s quick delivery. Atlanta has an endless array of pass routes, and they’ve been known to have as many as 13 players catch Ryan’s throws in the same game.
The Falcons’ pass attack resembles some of the greatest ever: the Chargers with Dan Fouts (especially 1979-1983); the Dolphins with Dan Marino (much of the ‘80s and ’90s); the Rams with Kurt Warner (1999-2001); and Peyton Manning with the Colts (2003-2010) and the Broncos (2012-2014).
Obvious advantages to schemes like Shanahan’s are that sacks are avoided (the Packers had none), the quarterback is seldom hit or injured, and completion percentages tend to be high (71 percent against the Packers). The main disadvantage is that there is (usually) little time to make long throws.
Somehow, however, Matt Ryan wound up with the league’s highest yardage per attempt during the regular season, at 9.26. Only two others averaged over eight yards per attempt: Tom Brady (8.23) and Kirk Cousins (8.11). Before Shanahan arrived, Ryan had never averaged eight or more yards per attempt in a season.
I think that the coming together of a fine veteran quarterback, the best receiver of the last five years, and the genius of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme is the primary reason Atlanta is going on to the Super Bowl. It’s the scheme, as much as the Atlanta players, that sliced and diced Green Bay.
Before you bet your life savings on the Falcons, however, be aware that the woefulness of the Packers’ defensive secondary gave the impression that Ryan and company are even better than they really are.
Finally, this looks to be a short-lived relationship. Shanahan has been in the conversation to become the head coach of several teams. His next game will probably be his last with Atlanta and Matt Ryan. It’s been reported that Shanahan has already accepted the San Francisco 49ers head coaching job.