Falcons’ 2022 season review: quarterbacks

Editor’s note: This is the second of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ 2022 season. Today: The quarterbacks

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Arthur Smith, not wanting to back himself into a corner, said he was “encouraged” by the four-game audition of rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder, which was less than a ringing endorsement of the signal-caller.

The Falcons want to take their time and leave all options open before declaring Ridder, a third-round pick (74th overall) in the 2022 NFL draft, as the franchise’s quarterback of the future.

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Ridder took over for Marcus Mariota, who started the first 13 games and decided he needed knee surgery after he was demoted over the bye week.

Last offseason, there was a report, which turned out to be erroneous, that Smith planned to continue to ride with Matt Ryan at quarterback. The Falcons jumped in the Deshaun Watson derby and at one point were considered the favorites. But cooler heads prevailed, and they didn’t attempt to match the $230 million guaranteed contract that the Browns tossed on the table.

With no Watson and with Ryan miffed, the team traded him to the Colts for a third-round draft pick. The Falcons immediately signed Mariota as a reclamation project after he was a backup for two seasons with the Raiders, and the Falcons took Ridder in the draft.

Mariota, a Heisman Trophy winner, never developed as a down-the-field passer, and defenses eventually started to sit on the short routes he was capable of completing.

It seemed like trouble always was lurking with Mariota, who had fumbling issues early, tossed the stop-drop-and-roll pass at Carolina, had a ball tipped at the goal line with a chance to win at Washington and then finally he couldn’t punch it in against the Steelers.

The Falcons dropped to 5-8 heading into the bye week and decided to make the change. Mariota was asked to stay and help mentor Ridder on Thursday of the bye week. The next day, the Falcons received a text from his agent informing them of the knee surgery.

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He hadn’t been on the injury report all season.

Ridder took over, and the Falcons lost to the Saints on Dec. 18 and then the Ravens on Dec. 24 to be officially eliminated from the playoffs.

But Ridder showed some signs of promise and went on to post wins over the Cardinals and Buccaneers, who played their backups for a little more than half of the game.

Ridder took better care of the ball but attained similar results in the passing attack, which was without tight end Kyle Pitts. However, Ridder did establish a connection with rookie receiver Drake London.

“From the evaluation process for Desmond, it’s not just, ‘Hey, how are we operating at the visitor’s stadium on third down?’” Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. “It’s how are we operating on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday of the practice week into Friday? How are you handling your body? What is your communications with your teammates?”

Ridder would have been aided by having another target such as Pitts, who went down with a knee injury after a hit in the Chicago game Nov. 20.

“So, for me, regardless of who’s out there, we run a lot of personnel, regardless of who’s healthy and who’s not,” Ragone said. “We try to put maximum stress pre-snap on the defense to allow the offense to have an advantage before the ball is snapped.”

Ridder, who played 271 offensive snaps, handled his pre-snap reads well.

“So, for us, with Desmond or any young player, you want to see their ability to handle as much mentally as possible. Physically, right, that’s what the fundamental periods are for in practice. To push these guys physically through.”

Ridder completed 73 of 115 passes (63.5%) for 708 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 86.4.

Ryan, with the benefit of a strong rushing attack, had an 87.7 passer rating as a rookie in 2008. Ryan, even after his dismal season with the Colts, has a career passer rating of 93.6.

So, the Falcons wanted to see how much Ridder could handle and had the luxury of letting him watch for 13 games. With Michael Vick in jail, the Falcons decided to open the season with Ryan when he was a rookie.

By contrast, Ryan was the third player taken overall in the draft.

“But, again, you don’t know a guy’s capacity until you push it mentally, specifically at the quarterback spot,” Ragone said. “You’d like to think that guys can handle that.”

Ragone was a third-round pick by the Texans in 2003.

“The reality is that most feel comfortable with a certain amount, but once you push them over that, they may have never been pushed that hard mentally,” Ragone said. “Therefore there is pushback, but you have to find that out as a coach. Because the farther you can stretch a quarterback’s mind in terms of pushing him mentally with what he’s seeing and how he’s going to react to something, typically the farther you can push him physically because now, right, there is no resistance.

“Because the mind takes over and tells the body, ‘Hey, we’re good. I’m overloaded.’ You have to get to that point with every quarterback, regardless of experience to see exactly where you can go with him.”

It’s doubtful that process was completed over a four-game stretch, which explains the “encouraged” tone by Smith.

“Once you realize that as a coach, you have to make the declaration as a coach, can I go farther?” Ragone said.

One of the concerns and reasons why Ridder lasted until the third round was because of his accuracy. He made 20 bad throws for an 18.2 bad-throw percentage, according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced stats. A total of 83 passes were on target for a 75.5 on-target percentage.

Mariota had a 22.5 bad-throw percentage and 70.6 on-target percentage.

Four quarterbacks still alive in the divisional round of the playoffs – Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow has a 79.1 on-target percentage, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts 77.8, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes 77.1 and Dallas’ Dak Prescott 76.3 – are on target for more than 75% of their throws.

“I don’t know if there’s a perfect science,” Ragone said. “Oh, he played this many snaps. He’s played this many games, (and) oh, I’ve got the evaluation. I think guys grow at different rates.”

Ragone was in Chicago when the Bears drafted Mitchell Trubisky ahead of Watson and Mahomes in 2017. He was Jake Locker’s position coach in 2013 with Tennessee.

Ragone was Trubisky’s quarterback coach from 2017-19. Trubisky went 11-3 as a starter in 2018 and was named to the Pro Bowl.

“I’ve been around young quarterbacks, and (with them) it clicked right away,” Ragone said. “I’ve been around young quarterbacks where it clicked later. I’ve been around young quarterbacks where it never clicked at all. But you keep waiting.”

Locker, the eighth overall pick in 2011, washed out of the league after the 2014 season.

Ragone cautioned to be mindful of the metrics and potential outliers.

Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Special teams

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