FLOWERY BRANCH — In front of a smattering of invited fans, all premium season-ticket holders, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Desmond Ridder strung together completion after completion. Dropping back in an 11-on-11 drill near the end of the Falcons’ minicamp practice Tuesday, Ridder looked poised, making deliveries on time and with velocity and accuracy to downfield targets. So…
Cue the confetti cannons and Arthur Blank doing the Griddy on the sideline. Ridder is so clearly the guy to usher in a new era in franchise history.
In a seven-on-seven drill during an OTA workout in Flowery Branch last week, Ridder sent a spiral spinning off his fingers, an arc timed up to come to rest in the arms of running back Tyler Allgeier after the Falcons running back had gotten a step behind coverage on a route down the sideline.
All appeared fine until … the ball returned to earth well in front of Allgeier, causing Ridder to slap his helmet with both hands in frustration. So…
Summon the gnashing of teeth as, obviously, the pox upon this star-crossed franchise continues. Falcons fans, take a pass on 2023 and set your aspirations upon USC superstar Caleb Williams.
Or maybe something else. Ridder’s first season as the Falcons’ full-time starting quarterback likely will wend itself on a path somewhere between those two poles. But how close to either?
It’s an unknowable at this point. Every year brings young quarterbacks who look like surefire hits and stumble. Falcons fans may recall that Marcus Mariota, he of the 61.3% completion rate last season, once was a second overall pick. (He was picked behind Jameis Winston in the 2015 draft; together, Mariota and Winston have a combined total of one playoff win.) And then others blossom unexpectedly. Last year’s NFL MVP runner-up, Jalen Hurts, was the 53rd overall pick of the 2020 draft, the fifth QB taken that year.
A full conclusion of Ridder’s capacity to lift the Falcons may not be available until the team completes the regular season in New Orleans in January. But how this odyssey unfolds will be a most compelling element to coach Arthur Smith’s third season at the helm of Blank’s club. If Ridder can be a consistent passer and playmaker, the Falcons’ aspirations for their first playoff appearance since the 2017 season after five consecutive losing seasons could be realized. But if not, their search for a foundational quarterback will continue, and the heat and questions concerning the viability of the regime of Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot will tick up.
No pressure or anything.
But, as training camp awaits in about a month and a half, at least this much can be said for the curly-haired married father of one (Ridder, that is) – he’s on the right path and doing all the right things that can be done at this point in time.
“What we’re able to do, what we’re trying to push and press, I feel very confident,” said Smith, speaking of his quarterback.
In the offseason, with no games to measure, Smith is taking stock of the less-tangible qualities, such as leadership and accountability, as well as how he’s done in on-field work. He said that he’s not as concerned about what Ridder’s completion percentage is in 7-on-7 work, adding that if he wanted to, he could jigger the play calls to ramp up Ridder’s practice numbers.
“I think (even) Sophie could hit a couple checkdowns,” Smith said, referring to his adorable daughter who had accompanied Dad to work that day and was observing him address media. “No offense, Sophie.”
In a year’s time since being drafted in the third round out of Cincinnati, Ridder has become a resource for his rookie teammates and newcomers to the roster, evidence of his absorption of the offense. A year ago, Ridder spent some of his down time teaching himself the playbook by maneuvering poker chips around as X’s and O’s and was so consumed with digesting the play calls when they were relayed to him that he didn’t have the bandwidth to engage in trash talk with the Falcons defense. But that was followed by training camp, preseason action, prep for 17 regular-season games and four starts to finish the season.
During the OTA workout a week ago Wednesday, Ridder could be spotted talking one-on-one with first-round pick Bijan Robinson and second-year receiver Drake London during 7-on-7 drills to share his knowledge of the playbook and develop their connection. And, his mind no longer encumbered with understanding play calls, he was buzzing in the ears of his defensive counterparts.
“I love it,” Ridder said of his role as tutor. “I have to be on my ‘A’ game, obviously, at all times, and then it helps them earn their respect for me seeing that I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, I know exactly what their job is and where they’re supposed to be. And then at the end of the day, early on, it helps me learn more, too. Like, I have to know everyone’s job.”
Falcons radio analyst Dave Archer said that Smith told him that, even from Ridder’s first days with the team, he was having to beat his quarterback into the building. Asked Tuesday if that was still the case, Smith hesitated before getting to the crux of the question. He first acknowledged the merits of working efficiently and also remotely. (Smith may own a 14-20 record thus far, but he does know something about supervising employees in a post-pandemic world.)
“You can be in Antarctica and I can break film down now with modern technology, assuming I can get Wifi,” Smith said. “I know a lot of people like to talk about first one on the field, last guy (off). But those habits, consistency – he’s got those.”
Acquitting himself well (most of the time) in non-contact passing drills, doing the homework and being a knowledgeable teammate are the right answers for June. They’re not everything, but they’re certainly better than if he were in a habit of scuffing up the turf with his passes and shrugging and pointing to offensive coordinator Dave Ragone when Robinson asks for his help.
Chances are, this works out favorably for the Falcons and Ridder. It’s not a conclusive answer on whether Ridder is the long-term answer. (Apologies for a less-than-scalding take. This is my first column.) But for now, it’ll have to do.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com