Bradley’s Buzz: Desmond Ridder, Arthur Smith and what might have been

Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder and coach Arthur Smith before the 2023 season opener against Carolina. The quarterback and the coach will open the 2024 season in different cities. (AJC file photo/Miguel Martinez)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder and coach Arthur Smith before the 2023 season opener against Carolina. The quarterback and the coach will open the 2024 season in different cities. (AJC file photo/Miguel Martinez)

The Falcons were 8-9 in games started by Desmond Ridder. Over those two seasons, they were 6-11 in games started by another quarterback. His completion percentage was better than Marcus Mariota’s in 2022, better than Taylor Heinicke’s in 2023.

Ridder is a Falcon no longer. He was traded Thursday to Arizona, which has Kyler Murray but has managed one winning season since 2015. I don’t know that Ridder is apt to start for the Cardinals soon if ever, but it wouldn’t shock me if he wound up starting somewhere before he’s done.

He’s not untalented. His errors – 12 interceptions, seven lost fumbles – were the biggest reason the Falcons missed the playoffs last season. He also led four game-winning drives. The Falcons’ best play was him keeping off the left side in the red zone. Their worst was when he threw the ball to the wrong team in the red zone.

The Falcons’ two-year Ridder experiment was a mixed bag, which you’d expect with any young quarterback, especially one drafted in Round 3. He had nice moments. He had awful moments. He wasn’t a complete victim of circumstance – he created some of those circumstances – but he got caught in the middle of something bigger than he was.

Arthur Smith named Ridder his quarterback for the coach’s third season here. Smith’s Falcons were 7-10 with Matt Ryan, then 7-10 mostly with Mariota. The pressure is immense on any NFL QB who starts any game in any year, but Ridder wasn’t just charged with playing the position. His performance became, as we knew it would, a weekly referendum on his coach.

The Falcons were 4-4 after a loss in Nashville. Ridder was checked for a concussion at halftime and didn’t play again that day. He didn’t play the next week, though he was active. Heinicke started. The Falcons lost when Joshua Dobbs, on Minnesota’s roster since Tuesday, led a last-gasp drive. They lost the next week to the 1-8 Cardinals on a day Heinicke started again but tweaked his hamstring.

Over the bye week, Smith reinstated Ridder. The Falcons won their next two games. They led the NFC South with five weeks remaining. The season turned on Dec. 9. Ridder threw an early interception that led to a Tampa Bay touchdown and lost a fumble that became a safety. He also threw for 347 yards and helped his team rally from nine points down to claim a fourth-quarter lead that was itself overcome.

The next Sunday brought the worst of all Ridder INTs. The wretched pass in Charlotte was essentially his final act as a Falcon. (He’d start the finale in New Orleans only because Heinicke was again ailing.) Benching Ridder a second time was Smith’s admission to the world that he’d picked the wrong guy. But did he?

A season that began with the coach seeking to nurture a quarterback became a scramble for the coach to save himself. I understand why Smith benched Ridder the second time. If the first benching was a warning – “Stop doing silly stuff!” – the second was a dismissal for cause.

About that first benching: The Falcons led their division by a half-game. The Tennessee loss was unfortunate, but the week before saw Ridder have a wild day in Tampa – he lost three fumbles – that ended with him leading a winning drive in the final 49 seconds.

Any benching can change the dynamics between coach and QB. The latter is given reason to believe the former no longer trusts him. It didn’t help that TV crews learned to keep a camera on Smith for Ridder Reactions, nor did it help that this coach isn’t a sideline stoic. The subtext – as the mistakes mounted, there was little “sub” to it – was that Smith viewed Ridder as the guy who was taking him down.

Which, in the end, happened. Still, I ask myself what if there’d been no first benching, if Smith had said, “I don’t love everything you’re doing, but you’re still my guy.” After the first benching, it was clear the Falcons had no guy.

Now they do. They have Kirk Cousins. Not coincidentally, Ridder and Smith have new employers.

The above is part of a regular exercise available to all who register on for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes extras like a weekly poll and pithy quotes, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Go to the home page. Click on “Choose from a variety of newsletters” at the top. Click on “Sports Daily.” You’ll need to enter your email address. Thanks, folks.