This week at the New York Times Fifth Down Blog I selected my quarter-season MVP:
If The Associated Press named a most valuable player of the first quarter of the season, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan would be the likely selection. He is leading an offense that has been as good as any in the N.F.L. The Falcons lead the N.F.C. in points scored and have the conference’s best record (4-0) despite a less than stellar defense, thanks in large part to Ryan’s league-leading 112.1 passer rating. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions; no other quarterback has a positive differential of more than six in contrasting those categories. Ryan is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt as part of a ruthlessly efficient Atlanta offense.
On Sunday, the Falcons trailed, 28-27, with the ball at their 1-yard line and only 59 seconds remaining. On the first play, Ryan faked a handoff and threw a deep pass along the left sideline to Roddy White for 59 yards. A few plays later, Matt Bryant kicked the game-winning 40-yard field goal. According to Scott Kacsmar, a statistician who goes by Captain Comeback, that was Ryan’s third game-winning drive that started with less than one minute remaining, trailing only Dan Marino and Mark Sanchez (four each) for most one-minute game-winning drives since 1981.
But don’t give Ryan all the credit: he’s playing with one of the best supporting casts in the league. Roddy White has been an elite wide receiver for years but has not received the level of national attention befitting that status. With 6,835 receiving yards, White leads the N.F.L. in that statistic since 2007. Over that span, only Wes Welker has more receptions. White also has the most receiving yards since 2008 and since 2009. With 413 receiving yards already in 2012, White looks ready to have another monster season.
As good as White is, many view him as only the Falcons’ second best wide receiver. Second-year star Julio Jones is one of the game’s best young players, although his numbers have yet to reflect his ability so far in 2012. After a 108-yard, 2-touchdown performance in Week 1, Jones has had diminished production, in part because of a hand injury, but he is still giving defensive coordinators nightmares. Jones drew a pass interference flag on the Falcons’ final drive and nearly connected on a deep pass from Ryan earlier in the game; significant statistical production won’t be far behind.
Then there’s Tony Gonzalez, the future Hall of Fame tight end. He leads all tight ends in 2012 in receptions and trails only Philadelphia’s Brent Celek in receiving yards. Earlier this year, Gonzalez moved into second place in N.F.L. history in career receptions behind Jerry Rice. If he can get to 93 receptions, he will set the record for receptions by a player 36 years or older (held, of course, by Rice). Gonzalez already has more receptions than any tight end at his age, a mark he set in Week 3.
Gonzalez isn’t the only geezer (in N.F.L. years) producing for Atlanta. Many were ready to write off running back Michael Turner, but the 30-year-old back rushed 13 times for 103 yards against the Panthers. But that’s just the side story: the 10-year veteran caught a short pass and turned it into a 60-yard touchdown, the first receiving touchdown of his career. Entering the game, Turner trailed only George Rogers, Gerald Riggs and Earl Campbell in career carries and career yards from scrimmage by a player with zero receiving touchdowns.
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