A strange, and weird, and good thing happened to me during the NFC Championship Game. If you know that I’m a big 49ers fan, you’d probably guess that thing was the 49ers 6th Superbowl berth, but it wasn’t. It was actually something I never dreamed would happen. I said words I never thought my Alex Smith loving self would say: “Matt Ryan’s a good quarterback.” Yeah I know, I’m an idiot for not saying so sooner, but Ryan changed my mind last week, and all it took was a glance at the TV at the right moment.
I thought Matt Ryan was one of those guys who was a product of his surroundings; lucky to hit the NFL lottery and go to a team with the perfect environment for success. The Falcons had a great coach (albeit a first time head coach); a sure handed, veteran wide receiver to be his security blanket; a new, young, powerful running back to take the pressure off of him; and the greatest tight end of all-time coming the very next season. He had it all, and my mind was made up that he was a product of who was around him. So, why did it matter so much to a 49ers fan? Why would I care about a guy who plays in a different division and would only play my favorite team every 3 years, sans a playoff match-up? Well, actually, the answer was a weird one: Alex Smith.
I saw a lot of similarities between Alex Smith and Matt Ryan. Their height, weight, and birthdays are eerily similar; both came from successful college programs, and both were selected in the first round to be their team’s savior. So, why did any of this make me dislike Matt Ryan?
If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck He’d Have No Luck
I’ve always been a staunch Alex Smith supporter; I feel like the vitriol he suffered through in San Francisco was unfair. Smith was drafted onto the worst team in the NFL and had a rag tag bunch of receivers to work with who were either college quarterbacks, or were suspended for doing illegal things. Smith went through a stretch of 7 straight seasons where he had to learn 7 new offenses, while having 2 defensive minded head coaches throw him under the bus, as well as an offensive line that was so bad he missed the equivalent of 2 full seasons with injuries. Not to mention a fan-base that constantly compared him to guys named Montana and Young. No one outside a small percentage of 49ers fans wanted to give Smith a break for said reasons, but everyone seemed to want to praise a guy with a similar skill set like Matt Ryan who had little adversity in comparison.
The more the media and fans in general dubbed ‘Matty Ice’ as the next elite NFL QB, the more I rooted against the guy. I was elated that Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals upset the Falcons in the playoffs his rookie season; I was ecstatic Aaron Rodgers and the Packers sent him and the #1 seeded Falcons home early in 2011; and I couldn’t have been happier that Eli Manning and the Giants embarrassed him in 2012. The weird thing was, all of said teams/quarterbacks were big rivals of the 49ers. Why should I root more against Matt Ryan than I would Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers,or Kurt Warner?
Alex Smith Got Lucky
Then came 49ers savior Jim Harbaugh. It seemed like all of the hurt from the Singletary and Nolan years vanished in a matter of weeks, and Alex Smith finally had some luck of his own. The 49ers got an offensive minded head coach with Harbagh, an offensive coordinator in Greg Roman who wanted to work to everyone’s strengths, and a defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio bringing the pass rush. With this type of coaching staff around him, the real Alex Smith could flourish – and flourish he did.
The world got to see Alex Smith lead the 49ers to a 13-3 record in 2011, while finishing with one of the best interception ratios in NFL history. They got to see Smith make the most important 49ers throw since The Catch II; they got to see him come an overtime fumble away from leading the 49ers to their first Superbowl in 17 years, and they got to see all of it because of Jim Harbaugh and company gave him an environment to succeed.
Maybe He’s Not So Bad After All
After the 2011 season, I wasn’t nearly as hard on Matt Ryan as I had been in years past, but I wasn’t exactly a supporter either. I watched week after week as the media talked him up while Roddy White and Matt Bryant bailed him out against weak teams. I watched his stats inflate and thought, “here we go again.” The Falcons earned the #1 seed in the NFC, and I knew if the 49ers were going to get to the Superbowl, it was most likely going through Atlanta.
In week 10 Alex Smith suffered a concussion and was replaced by 2nd year backup Colin Kaepernick. Since then, Kaepernick looks to be the present and the future of the 49ers. Smith led the team to a 23-8-1 record as a starter in his last 32 games, while Kaepernick has them playing in the Superbowl on February 3rd.
To get to the Superbowl, the 49ers had to beat Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta – no small feat. The Falcons had a 33-5 regular season record at home with Ryan at the helm, and were known for winning games in the final seconds (like they did against the 49ers in 2010). This game looked to be no different. With the Falcons down 28-24 in the 4th quarter, Ryan drove his team down to the 49ers 16 yard line at the 2 minute warning. One the next play, he completed a 6 yard pass to Jason Snelling, but took a hard hit from Ahmad Brooks in the process. After that play I glanced away from my computer for a second and saw something in Ryan that changed how I felt about him. Something I’m sure everyone else – Atlanta fans especially – saw years ago.
Ryan got rid of the ball on that play just before Brooks hit him. After the hit, Brooks landed on top of Ryan crushing his left shoulder into the turf. When Ryan got up you could see he was obviously hurting. He grimaced in pain, pushed his left shoulder pad up with his right hand, and walked back to the huddle with his team. It was then that I realized something: I criticize Ryan for the same reasons people criticized Alex Smith. Having a better situation than Alex Smith isn’t his fault, and holding that against him makes no sense. If it was unfair to criticize Smith for things out of his control, then the same should hold true for Ryan. He’s doing what any good QB would do: lead, play good football, and win games. Why would anyone not want to give him credit? Why would anyone not support a guy like that? Yes he had good players around him, but wide receivers, tight ends, and teams in general are nothing without a good qb. Ryan deserved the credit he was getting, and he made Michael Vick a distant memory in the hearts of Falcons fans.
So Long, Alex…
Alex Smith won’t be with the 49ers next year, that I can guarantee. His time in SF is up. He redeemed himself and his image with a great 32 game stretch that included a playoff run and his own small chapter of success in 49ers history. I’m sure I’ll root for Alex Smith wherever he goes, but I also know I’ll now be rooting for Matt Ryan. I”l be watching him play excellent football, leading the Falcons to wins, and paying close attention to how he reacts after a big hit. So Matt Ryan if you’re reading, I’m sorry for disliking you, Alex Smith made me do it.