BY ELI KABERON
After some research, I determined there are only 10 or so NFL players with real, deserving nicknames these days. I say real, as in they weren’t given to them by themselves (I’m looking at you, Terrell ‘T-Sizzle’ Suggs) and they aren’t just initials or shortened version of their own names (the RG3s and A-Rods of the world). And in deserving, I mean I’m not calling Devin Hester the Windy City Flyer any more because he no longer files down the field.
The league’s best nickname is Megatron, which was given to Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson by former teammate Roy Williams. Like the Transformer who he is named for, Johnson can contort himself into a dangerous weapon whenever a pass is in the air. Johnson narrowly beats out Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who’s also known as the Law Firm, for the distinction.
The league’s most creative nickname goes to Buccaneers rookie sensation Doug Martin, who is known affectionately as the Muscle Hamster. Nobody is exactly sure why Martin’s called this, but the name dates back to when he played at Boise State. He overtook another running back, Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks, aka Beast Mode, for the honor.
However, in my opinion, the league’s most perplexing nickname belongs to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Since he played at Boston College, Ryan’s gone by Matty Ice, a nickname that implies the signal caller has ice in his veins and that he’s cool under pressure. Given the lack of nicknames in the NFL, Matty Ice is a pretty good one. But was it deserving?
Some could argue yes. According to Pro Football Reference, Ryan had 15 fourth-quarter comebacks during his first five seasons in the league. For reference, in that same span, from 2008 through 2012, Drew Brees had 13 comebacks, Ben Roethlisberger had 12, and Aaron Rodgers had just five. With a strong arm and a terrific ability to read defenses, Ryan is exactly the kind of QB opponents fear when the clock is ticking down. He’s tough to sack, constantly makes smart throws and – given the receiving targets he has on the Falcons – he gives his wideouts chances to make big plays. It’s no coincidence that given his late-game magic, the Falcons have made the playoffs four times in his five seasons.
There’s also a valid argument that Matt Ryan is not deserving of a nickname that tells observers he’s great when it matters most. For one thing, he does have those talented playmakers. If anybody deserves credit, it should be Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Turner, the guys who run the routes and make the plays when Atlanta needs points. Second, the reason the Falcons need all those fourth-quarter comebacks is that Ryan sometimes struggles early in games. And lastly, while four playoff trips in five years may sound nice, it got the Falcons a grand total of zero playoff wins through 2012.
Which brings us to Sunday’s game, where the big-bad Falcons, they of the 13-3 regular season record, the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the first-round bye, were one-point favorites over the wild card Seahawks, who were making there second 3,000-plus mile trip to the East Coast in as many weeks. Ryan and Co. had been in this position before, as the top seed about to face a wild-card opponent in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. In January of 2011, after a 13-3 regular season, the Falcons hosted the Packers to the Georgia Dome. Atlanta went up 14-7 early in that game. The final score: Packers 48, Falcons 21. Ryan threw two picks, including one that was returned 70 yards for a TD.
Versus Seattle, the Falcons again jumped out early. Up 20-0 at halftime, it looked like Ryan would finally get that playoff win he was looking for. Even after the Seahawks scored a TD in the third quarter, Ryan responded again, throwing his third touchdown pass of the day to give Atlanta a 27-7 leading heading into the game’s final 15 minutes.
But as it tends to do in playoff football, momentum changed in the fourth. About 17 minutes in game time after they were up 20, Ryan and the Falcons were now down by one with just 30 second remaining.
This is where it helps to have Matty Ice, the guy with all the fourth-quarter comebacks. That is, if that’s really Ryan. Nobody knew for sure which quarterback the Falcons would get for their final drive, maybe for the season. The Falcons needed at least 40 yards against one of the league’s top defense, and they needed it in about 20 seconds.
Following the kickoff return, Ryan hit wideout Harry Douglas along the sideline for 22 yards. Five seconds off the clock. Then Ryan found Gonzalez over the middle for 19 yards. Six more ticks off. Out trotted kicker Matt Bryant, who drilled a 49-yard field goal. Three plays, 41 yards, all in 13 seconds, or about the time it takes to tie your shoes. Following one final Russell Wilson interception, it was game, set, match. The Falcons are in the NFC Championship game.
Quarterbacks have a lot of ways to legitimize their legacy, but almost all of them have to do with winning games in the playoffs. Tom Brady’s first ever playoff start was the infamous Tuck Rule game. Joe Montana’s second postseason start ended with ‘The Catch’ from Dwight Clark. Eli Manning lost his first two playoff starts and was almost chased out of New York; since, he’s won eight of his last nine postseason games.
It took Ryan a while to get off the postseason schneid. He suffered through three tough losses, and it looked like he was on his way to a fourth. But he showed on Sunday why he’s an elite quarterback. When the Falcons needed him most, with the game on the line, he came through.
It’s impossible to say what the future holds for the Atlanta Falcons, or for Matt Ryan. But after the win over the Seahawks, it’s difficult to say Matty Ice is a perplexing nickname. It’s now clearly one that is well deserved.