Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco Approaching Elite Status in ‘Make-or-Break’ Fifth NFL Season


Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco Approaching Elite Status in 'Make-or-Break' Fifth NFL SeasonFar too often do we rush to judgement on young athletes in sports and no type of player is subjected to more of that judgement than quarterbacks in the NFL.

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco have taken their share of criticism in their careers, but now, with both in their fifth NFL season, it looks as though (to quote Dennis Green) they are who we thought they were.

With Flacco’s win over the Patriots on Sunday night, both of these players have come up big in prime time early in the year. Ryan out-dueled Peyton Manning and the Broncos last Monday night and is currently at the helm of one of just three undefeated teams left in the NFL.

Both players were first-round draft picks in the 2008 NFL Draft and were expected to come in, start immediately and lead their teams to the promise land. Both players have tasted the playoffs, but neither has been able to get their teams to the final weekend. However, all that could change the way these two are playing this season.

Through three games, Ryan is first in the NFL in quarterback rating (114), completion percentage (72 percent) and touchdown passes (eight) and has the Falcons looking like a real contender in the NFC. After trips to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons have ended prematurely — although both losses came against the eventual Super Bowl champion — “Matty Ice” has looked like the quarterback who made Boston College relevant on a national level in 2007.

Ryan has been on the verge of cracking that next level of NFL-quarterback stardom for the last two seasons and this year looks like the year he steps into that tier behind Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Eli Manning.

Joining him on that tier is Flacco, although if you ask him he’s the best of the group. The Ravens’ signal-caller has developed somewhat of a gun-slinger reputation because of his strong arm and questionable decision making. However, on the whole, Flacco has never been one to turn the ball over very much and that trend has continued in 2012.

In three games, Flacco has thrown just two interceptions against six touchdowns to go with a 101.1 quarterback rating, good for ninth in the league. His 382 yards against the Patriots on Sunday was the second-highest single-game output of his career and came after he boldly told NBC’s Bob Costas that he believed he was on the same level as Brady.

Putting Flacco in that elite group seems a bit premature through just three games, but putting him with Ryan on that tier directly behind them puts him in company with Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. For Flacco and Ryan — two players who have been rising stars — this year is their make-or-break season and they look poised to use it as a launching point.

The fifth season has been a good barometer of where a player — specifically a quarterback — is in his development and how much higher his ceiling can go. In many cases, if a player has not made a significant step forward by that time, they are written off and deemed a bust.

Looking at the six quarterbacks named thus far — Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger — all six of them had either made a Pro Bowl or won a Super Bowl. By year No. 5, a quarterback has come into his own in an offense and should be at or near their potential.

Brady’s fifth season was in 2004 when he led the Patriots to 14-2 record and their second straight Super Bowl.

Peyton Manning had already made three Pro Bowls by 2002 and was hitting his stride as a quarterback. The Colts went 10-6 that year and did not have a losing season until last year when he did not play.

Roethlisberger had already won a Super Bowl and made a Pro Bowl before his fifth season in 2008 and he even added a second championship since then.

Rodgers was in his second season as Brett Favre‘s successor in 2009 when he threw for 4,434 yards and 30 touchdowns while making his first Pro Bowl.

Eli Manning was coming off a Super Bowl championship when his fifth season came in 2008 and had previously been on the verge of being called a bust. Eli made his first Pro Bowl that year and is now considered an elite quarterback.

The one outlier in this group is Brees, but not by much. Brees came into his fifth season in 2005 after a Pro Bowl year the season before, but a labrum injury hampered him at the end of the year and led to the Chargers letting him leave in free agency. He signed with the Saints and the rest is history.

If history is any indication of how the best players in the NFL develop, this will be the year that either Ryan or Flacco — or both — finally jumps into the upper echelon of the league’s quarterbacks.

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