You could hear it late in the season, a thunderous chorus of Atlantans all chanting the same three letters, again and again.
“M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P! ”
Throughout the Falcons’ 11 -5 season and their impressive playoff operate all the way to the Super Bowl, the chants grew louder as the team inched closer to the ever-elusive championship. The human who fans had deemed an NFL MVP quarterback Matt Ryan maintained playing like one.
Ryan is Atlanta’s franchise cornerstone, a Falcons veteran of nine seasons. He’s the leader of the team’s dynamic offense, a field general with the arm strength to make plays you’d usually see in video games.
Among this year’s best statistical quarterbacks, he’s resulted the Falcons to their deepest playoff run in nearly 20 years within one victory of their first-ever Super Bowl title.
But if you’ve watched the Falcons over the past 10 years, you know those “M-V-P” chants weren’t always unanimous. Ryan earned the praise. That’s because for much of his career, the shadow of his larger-than-life predecessor engulfed him altogether.
Michael Vick, the human cheat code
Long before Matt Ryan’s tenure started in Atlanta, there was Michael Vick. To understand the type of quarterback Vick was, appear no further than his nickname “The Human Cheat Code.”
Vick did things that no one had ever seen before. His jaw-dropping jukes left defenders in the dust, his ability to switching directions induced him impossible to stop, even for the stoutest NFL defenses.
Agile, dynamic and fast he clocked a 4.33 40 -yard dash, the fastest of any NFL quarterback to this day Vick was a phenomenon for two years at Virginia Tech before the Falcons selected him No. 1 overall in the 2001 NFL Draft.
All of which explains why it didn’t take long for Vick’s star to rise in Atlanta, on and off the field.
In a Player’s Tribune article, Vick describes what it was like when he emerged as the Falcons’ starter, when an entire cityrallied around a 21 -year-old quarterback from Virginia. Kids in Atlanta had a cultural idol, Vick tells, and the community had an icon.
“It merely felt very real, ” Vick writes. “It felt like we had induced football cool again. Or maybe football wasn’t even ever cool to begin with maybe we induced it cool for the first time. But whatever it was that was happening, it was happening in a big way.”
He was soon embraced by the burgeoning local hip-hop scene. Music videos were peppered with Michael Vick jerseys throughout the mid-2 000 s. Atlanta’s top entertainers flooded the Georgie Dome to watch The Michael Vick Experience. Vick even made a cameo in the video for T.I.’s smash-hit and party anthem “Rubber Band Man.”
“It was a full-on cultural moment, ” Vick writes. “It was Atlanta athletics, and Atlanta music, and Atlanta movies. And they were all just sort of coexisting, and feeding off of each other, and building one another want to be great, in this really special way.”
But the Georgie Dome party aimed abruptly in 2007 when Vick pled guilty to his involvement in a puppy fighting ring. The NFL suspended him and the Falcons released him.
Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison. Atlanta lost its icon. And “the mens” that turned his football squad into Atlanta’s cultural heartbeat soon became the focal point of protests and boycotts for his actions off the field.
After six years of watching one of the most exciting players in football, the Falcons also needed a new quarterback.
The early years of Matt Ryan
In 2008, the Falcons got their quarterback. They drafted Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, but his selection was barely met with the same fanfare as Vick.
Ryan was good , no question about it. An All-American and ACC Player of the Year, he had led Boston College to three bowl victories. He even earned NFL Rookie of the Year honors in 2008.
But Matt Ryan was no human cheat code. He didn’t make the thrill-inducing highlights Vick did. And even more troubling, he couldn’t pull through when Atlanta needed him. Turnovers and interceptions led to early postseason exits for the Falcons in three of Ryan’s first four seasons. He became the all-too-easy scapegoat for the Falcons’ late-season afflictions. Fans roasted him. The media followed.
Naturally, Ryan had trouble winning over Atlanta. The city didn’t espouse him the style it did Vick, especially when the Falcons missed the playoffs for three straight years.
Then, 2016 happened.
Matt Ryan, the MVP
The Matt Ryan of 2016 was a madman, a leading MVP candidate putting up absurd numbers a career-best 38 touchdowns and 4,944 yards with merely seven interceptions.
Of course, he can thank the talent around him.
Wide receiver Julio Jones finished 2016 with 1,409 find yards. Operating backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman provided a dangerous backfield duo. Essentially, many tout the Falcons offense as the best in the NFL.
So it begs the questions after nine years, has Matt Ryan ultimately outgrown Michael Vick’s darknes? Does he require a Super Bowl win to be loved by Atlanta?
Well, rapper T.I. once the pillar of Atlanta’s booming culture answered that topic on Friday.
“He’s already loved, ” T.I. told ESPN ‘s First Take. “He’s already been espoused. I think he’s proven himself … simply by making it[ to the Super Bowl] and having this type of season.”
Michael Vick never won a Super Bowl or an MVP. Matt Ryan is inches from both, and one of those honors is very likely to etch his name in Falcons lore forever. Not as Vick’s replacement, but in his own right.
It won’t be easy.
Many talented quarterbacks have dashed Ryan’s championship hopes. In 2009, two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner aimed the Falcons’ season. Two year later, Ryan lost to another two-time NFL MVP, the formidable Aaron Rodgers. A year after that, it was eventual Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.
Now, heading into the Super Bowl, the only thing in Ryan’s way is a 39 -year-old immortal touchdown machine named Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback and a fellow MVP frontrunner.
But this isn’t the Ryan of the past. He has Julio Jones. He has the best offense in football. And, at long last, he’s got what some said he never would.
Matt Ryan ultimately has Atlanta.