HOUSTON – Matt Ryan, the newly crowned MVP of the National Football League, feels your pain, Vikings fans. And he’s here, standing atop football’s grandest stage, to tell you — no, show you — that 2017 can be historically better than OK for a Vikings team that will host next year’s Super Bowl.
“My advice [to the Vikings] is to just keep plugging, keep working and have the belief that your process is correct and that what you’re doing is right,” said Ryan, whose Atlanta Falcons play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium on Sunday. “If you continue to work at it, you’re going to get the results that you want.”
This is no generic Tony Robbins pep talk, folks. A mere 12 months ago, Ryan and the NFC champion Falcons were walking a path identical to the one the Vikings are on right now. They were dazed, their jaws agape as they tried to comprehend how a 5-0 start led to a 3-8 finish and the dishonor of becoming the fifth team since 1990 to start 5-0 and not make the playoffs.
“I’m not really sure if you can pinpoint just rock bottom, but when you lose a number of games in a row, that’s tough,” Ryan said. “It’s tough on you. You put so much work into it, and to lose close games and to not get the results that you want, it’s difficult.”
Been there, done that. The 2016 Vikings also started 5-0, finished 3-8 and now head into an offseason hopeful that they can keep mirroring Matty Ice’s squad on their way to becoming the first team to play in the Super Bowl in its own stadium.
A bounce-back won’t be easy. Of course, it never is, especially when the head-scratching fall from the top lasts 11 games and challenges every core belief that seems so rock-solid positive when a team starts 5-0.
“The frustration level was definitely high [last year],” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. “I can assure you of that.”
All this sounds great in theory. But how in the world did the Falcons actually do it? How did they turn 3-8 into 11-5, a division title, a first-round bye and consecutive home playoff routs of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers?
Quinn points to turnover differential as the most significant turnaround. But there are many factors, including better health (three of Atlanta’s nine players on injured reserve last year were offensive linemen); defenders evolving in the second year of Quinn’s system; Ryan using Year 2 of Kyle Shanahan’s offense as a catapult to winning MVP while Atlanta led the league in scoring; and a magnificently efficient infusion of outside talent via the draft and free agency.
Quinn, who has final say on the 53-man roster, worked with General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, who survived owner Arthur Blank’s purge in 2015, to add a whopping 22 new faces — 17 free agents, including undrafted rookie cornerback Brian Poole (nine starts at nickelback), and five draft picks — to the roster this past offseason. Of those 22, six or seven will start in the Super Bowl, including big-money free-agent acquisitions Alex Mack at center and Mohamed Sanu at receiver; and the team’s top four rookie draft picks: Keanu Neal at safety, Deion Jones at linebacker, Austin Hooper at tight end and former Gopher De’Vondre Campbell at linebacker. Poole might start, too, depending on the defensive alignment.
All of that makes Ryan uncomfortable accepting too much credit, despite posting the fifth-highest passer rating in NFL history (117.2) and following it up with a postseason that’s seen him complete 70.7 percent of his passes for 730 yards, a 9.7 average per attempt, seven touchdowns, no turnovers and a 132.6 rating.
“I think I’ve continued to improve and work really hard to get the most out of myself,” Ryan said. “I think specifically this year, I made a few changes in terms of my offseason training program and work with Adam Dedeaux and Tom House out in California. I felt like that really helped me train the way that I needed to.
“But I also think just the addition of some of the players on our team, guys like Alex Mack coming into our offensive line and Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and Aldrick Robinson at the wide receiver position. And you talk about two young tight ends for us — Josh Perkins and Austin Hooper. When you put a lot of talent around you, it makes it easier to make plays, and our supporting cast has done a great job this year.”
Defensively, Neal essentially became the Kam Chancellor of the defense Quinn brought with him from Seattle, where he went to consecutive Super Bowls as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. Jones and Campbell became the coverage linebackers. Poole was a surprise and 36-year-old pass rusher Dwight Freeney sure looked like a free-agent bargain when he was chasing down Rodgers two weeks ago.
Offensively, adding Mack from the woeful Browns solidified Ryan’s protection. Dimitroff then tapped the Browns again in September when he signed Gabriel, a burner at receiver who had been released. Hooper and receiver Robinson, another free-agent signing, added even more speed to combine with superstar Julio Jones. Meanwhile, Sanu is another big receiver with two touchdown catches in the postseason.
“They have too many weapons,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the reigning NFL master of deciphering which weapon a defense needs to limit in order to collapse an entire offense.
They are also taking better care of the ball. The Falcons’ turnover differential was minus-6 a year ago — including 25 giveaways and a minus-12 during the 3-8 slide — and plus-11 this year, tied for fourth best in the league with the Vikings. They are also plus-4 with no giveaways in the postseason.
“It didn’t happen overnight, this attitude to take care of the ball and go after it,” Quinn said. “It came from every day at practice, going for it, battling for it. That’s been the biggest difference for us.”
Dimitroff said he actually became more convinced during the 3-8 slide that Quinn was the right man for maneuvering a team through the NFL’s inevitable ups and downs.
“I know it’s cliché, but you do learn much more about a person’s leadership ability when they’re in the tough times,” Dimitroff said. “I was really impressed watching Dan work through that. It’s not easy. Last year was very frustrating. For 11 games, we struggled to find the answers. But Dan was able to pull us through the tough times and here we are. In the Super Bowl a year later.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider.
Twitter: @MarkCraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org