Dec. 19 (UPI) — Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan says he isn’t surprised how quickly coach Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers have become one of the best teams in the NFL.
Ryan once shared the same sideline as Shanahan, who served as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016 before bolting for the Bay Area. They faced off Sunday, with the Falcons pulling off an upset.
Shanahan steered the 49ers to an 8-0 start in this year behind a top-five offense and defense. San Francisco (11-3) managed to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2013, despite losing to Atlanta.
“They certainly have a lot of talent on the defensive line,” Ryan said of the 49ers. “There are four or five first-round draft picks in that position group. They have some veteran guys on the back end who are leaders.
“I know Kyle is a great offensive coach who has been running the ball extremely well. They are extremely explosive. It didn’t surprise me. They have good talent, good players and good coaching, and they put that all together this year.”
Ryan and Shanahan maintain a friendship, despite severing professional ties in Atlanta, but the Falcons quarterback said he didn’t have any extra motivation to beat the 49ers with his former offensive coordinator coaching the team.
“I obviously really enjoyed my time with him,” Ryan said. “We are good friends. I wish him nothing but the best. I’m happy for the success he has had because he is a great coach.”
Life after Shanahan
“I thought we did a pretty good job the year after [Shanahan left for the 49ers],” Ryan said. “Obviously, our statistics weren’t as good in 2017 as they were in 2016. That was one of those special years where a lot of things went right and we were rolling.”
Ryan threw 18 fewer touchdown passes and five additional interceptions in 2017, compared with his 2016 season, the largest drop-off of his career. Still, the Falcons went 10-6 and made the playoffs. They lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles that postseason after failing to score a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds despite having the ball at the 2-yard line.
A year later, Ryan posted similar numbers to his MVP campaign, with 4,924 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but the Falcons went 7-9. Atlanta slipped again in 2019 and has just five wins with two games remaining in the season.
“I thought we bounced back pretty well, but the last couple of years, we just haven’t been good as a team,” Ryan said. “I’m hoping that changes for us as we move forward.”
Ryan’s Falcons (5-9) are far removed from the playoff picture in 2019, but the veteran quarterback has remained consistent when it comes to his on-the-field production.
The Falcons had a 56-22 record and Ryan averaged 3,971 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his first five seasons. Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs in three of those seasons, making the Pro Bowl twice.
Ryan remained productive in 2013 and 2014, despite the Falcons posting a 10-22 record. He made the Pro Bowl in 2014, the year before Shanahan arrived. The Falcons went 8-8 in Shanahan’s first season leading the offense.
A year later, Ryan completed a career-high 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions while winning NFL MVP honors and a Super Bowl berth.
But offense is just one of the three phases of a game when it comes to football. Teams must also execute on defense and on special teams to win.
The Falcons have just one season with a top-10 defense under coach Dan Quinn. Atlanta had the No. 1 scoring offense during the 2016 Super Bowl run, but ranked 27th in points allowed. The next season, the Falcons ranked 15th in points scored and eighth in points allowed. Atlanta ranked 25th in points allowed in 2018.
Ryan’s constant production can’t equate to a complete football team, something that Shanahan appears to have in San Francisco. The 49ers have multiple 2020 Pro Bowl selections on offense and defense and received the most votes for the Pro Bowl of any NFC team.
Ryan also believes Shanahan can help grow quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s game.
“I think they will work great together, and they have already,” Ryan said. “Jimmy is doing a great job out there. He’s playing really well. He has had some really good games this year and put them in position to win.
“I think those guys will continue to grow and work well together.”