FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — On Aug. 4, the Internet got a kick out of the video of Atlanta QB Matt Ryan throwing a training camp interception near the goal line to … offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
There was more to the video, of course. Rookie tight end Austin Hooper was supposed to flatten his route at the goal line and the ball would have been there, but instead, he took a bad angle, a move that likely would have led to an interception in a regular season game, too. The problem was, in this case, the interceptor, rather than wearing a helmet, was wearing sneakers and had the play sheet dangling out of his waistband.
For some, it was proof-positive that this relationship was doomed. After all, it came after a 2015 season when Ryan averaged an interception per game as he struggled to find a rhythm in his first year with Shanahan, who's had to battle his own perception issues over the past decade.
“He was like, ‘Oh my god I can’t believe this thing went viral. I will not, in walk-through, go through and intercept any more passes. Even when it’s not you I’m trying to prove a point to,’” Ryan recalled Shanahan saying. “I said I appreciate that. We both won’t have to answer questions. We’re at least on the same page there moving forward.”
Ryan can joke about it now because the Falcons are 3–1 and have the best offense in football. In terms of yards (1,915 total; 478.8 per game) and points (152), no other NFL team sniffs Atlanta so far. The Falcons are averaging 9.1 yards per first-down play for goodness sakes, and they own an early two-game lead in a bad division before going west for back-to-back road games against Denver and Seattle. But before Ryan was throwing for 503 yards against the reigning NFC champions, back when he was tossing picks to Shanahan, there were plenty of questions about this offense, and about the health of the relationship between the QB and his coordinator.
The questions began as soon as Falcons coach Dan Quinn hired Shanahan, who had just finished a quick one-year stop with Johnny Manziel’s Browns in 2014. They lingered last November, when the Falcons were in the midst of a six-game losing streak. And they certainly didn’t stop after one of the most beloved receivers in team history, Roddy White, fired a few shots at Shanahan on his way out the door in the spring.
“Sometimes you have to go through the rough patches and go through the adversity to say, alright man, we’re in this together. That’s the cool part about those two,” Quinn said of Shanahan and Ryan. “They totally relied on one another, but you have to go through the difficult process. Now their communication is better than it’s ever been.”
Shanahan got his start in Tampa Bay with Jon Gruden before joining Gary Kubiak in Houston in 2006 as a wide receivers coach. Kubiak said this week—and maybe it was a stretch—he and Shanahan sort of grew up together, with Kubiak as a young coach under Mike Shanahan and the junior Shanahan always being around the building as a kid.
Shanahan rose to quarterbacks coach with the Texans in 2007 despite never playing the position, and then to offensive coordinator in 2008. “I was probably a pain in the butt” to Kubiak in his first year, Shanahan admits now. Now at this his fourth stop in the league as an OC, Shanahan has had three top-five offenses and is on pace for a fourth.
There have been hints of nepotism throughout his career, especially when he was named the youngest offensive coordinator in NFL history at age 28. Now he’s 36 and has dealt with a mostly unfair reputation of being a quarterback killer—from a public spat with Donovan McNabb to Robert Griffin III’s implosion in Washington to leaving Cleveland over a disagreement about how much Manziel should play.
When he moved to Atlanta last year, Shanahan brought his outside zone scheme with him, and forced Ryan to be more mobile with bootlegs. The offense did well on third downs and time of possession, but it turned the ball over too often and scored fewer than 21 points in eight of the final 11 games last year, en route to an 8–8 season.
So when White said Shanahan “mismanaged things and screwed up” in 2015 and cost the Falcons two wins in a season where the Falcons had the No. 21 scoring offense, it didn’t help perception.
“Rod is one of my all-time favorite teammates,” Ryan said. "He wasn’t happy with the way things ended, and I don’t want to speak for him, but how he felt is out there. I understand because it was something very different than what we had done for a long time. But at the same time, did it help or hurt moving forward? I don’t know. We knew what we had to do after last season to get better and change.”
One of the first steps in doing so was solidifying the offensive line with center Alex Mack, who knew Shanahan’s system from his year in Cleveland. Then the Falcons added receiver Mohamed Sanu to get some speed on the other side of Julio Jones.
Of course, another year in the scheme helped Ryan, but it’s more than that.
“Everybody wants to say it’s the play calling, and sometimes it’s just knowing all of your guys. I feel a lot has been made about the relationship between me and Kyle,” Ryan said. “I think Kyle and I have gotten to know each other better for sure, but I think Kyle and Julio have gotten to know each other better. Kyle and the offensive line know each other better. I think he understands our running backs better and what their skill sets are, what they do well.
“When things look different to certain people, they’re going to look at something and say, ‘well why don’t you go do it the old way?’ That’s just not who we are. We don’t have Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White in his prime. We don’t have Harry Douglas and Mike Turner. We’re a different outfit than we were in 2010, ’11 and ’12. And that’s cool. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do now.”
Adjusting to personnel has been Shanahan’s biggest evolution, Ryan says. The quarterback estimates Atlanta was in seldom-used 13 personnel—one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver—for at least 15 plays in the Week 2 win against Oakland.
Shanahan is also doing what Mack refers to as having “everything work off itself.” After the Falcons have run the ball effectively, an opponent may bring a safety down into the box. Shanahan devises a play that gives the appearance of a run but it’s really a pass that has the potential to break the game open.
That’s what happened with four minutes left in last week’s dominating win over Carolina. Up by eight points, the Falcons snapped the ball from their 25-yard line for a play that looked like a run. The Panthers, in their base 4–3 defense, brought strong safety Kurt Coleman into the box and Ryan, under center in the I-formation, brought his tight end in motion beside the left tackle. A play-action fake to the running back made Carolina bite, and Jones caught a quick pass on an in-breaking route, ran 75 yards (with a top speed of 21.09 MPH) and scored.
“I study [Shanahan’s] film all the time obviously after being together for a long time and watching his growth,” Kubiak said. “He really has branched out and does a lot of things. Playing a lot of personnels. I think his offenses have new identities every year. That’s a credit to him.”
No one is expecting another 300-yard day from Jones against the Broncos this weekend. Jones will likely see plenty of man coverage from Aqib Talib with help over the top from a safety, much like what Denver did against A.J. Green in Week 2. But that’s okay—one of Ryan’s best traits this season is getting everyone involved in the passing game. Twice he’s hit nine pass-catchers in a game this season, and the other two games he found eight.
“You want to do things always that puts guys in position to succeed, and that usually lasts a week and a defense knows how to stop that,” Shanahan said. “You can’t just do that. You’ve got to adjust and find something else to do or go to another person and feature someone else’s trait that they can do.”
These numbers don’t seem to be sustainable, not with games against two top-four defenses in the next two weeks. But after a tumultuous 2015, things are clicking with the Falcons in a way that they haven’t since the team’s 2012 postseason run.
“The way we are now is because of last year,” Jones said. “You have to struggle before you can be successful. Without that struggle we wouldn’t be where we’re at now.”