Time for Falcons to see if Desmond Ridder is the next Matt Ryan

With Matt Ryan, the Falcons got a winning lottery ticket out of a losing situation. They were bad enough to get the No. 3 pick in 2008 because Michael Vick was facing federal dogfighting charges. They were lucky enough that the Dolphins and Rams passed over Ryan.

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The Falcons had their franchise quarterback. The Dolphins have been searching for one since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. The Rams stumbled upon Kurt Warner (1998-2003), shortsightedly let him go when injuries affected his play and then watched Warner take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl as the Rams kept looking for another great quarterback.

The Falcons finally have to begin their own search. After 14 seasons with Ryan as the starter and 13 games with Marcus Mariota as his short-term replacement, they are hoping Desmond Ridder will be Ryan’s successor as franchise quarterback.

Ridder will make his NFL debut at New Orleans on Sunday. He said he’s ready. Coach Arthur Smith said he believes that because Ridder has shown good work habits while waiting for his chance.

“But until we go play and do it, they’re just words right now,” Smith said.

I don’t see Ridder as an all-or-nothing proposition for the Falcons. If he’s not the guy at quarterback, they have other ways of finding one. But the Falcons don’t want to end up on the treadmill of constantly searching for a franchise quarterback. They haven’t had to do that since wandering the quarterback wilderness in the years between Steve Bartkowski and Vick.

Ryan was the Falcons’ starter from 2008-21. Incredibly, he missed only three games during those 14 years. The league’s other 31 teams started 166 different QBs over that span, according to the Pro Football Reference database. Among that group, only 49 started at least 48 games, the equivalent of three seasons.

Ridder faces long odds of becoming a good starting quarterback in the NFL. The chances are even slimmer that Ridder will be as good as Ryan at his peak. Don’t let Ryan’s decline make you forget about his greatness. He was voted to four Pro Bowl teams, won the league MVP award in 2016 and was no worse than a top-10 quarterback for 10 seasons.

It’s possible to be a Super Bowl contender without a great quarterback. The Rams just won a championship with Matthew Stafford, who was pretty good. Lesser quarterbacks than Stafford won Super Bowls before him, including Jim McMahon, Jeff Hostetler, and Trent Dilfer. Expand the criteria to quarterbacks who played in the Super Bowl and you get the likes of Tony Eason, Stan Humphries and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Those quarterbacks are outliers. They benefited from playing on teams with a great defense, great skill players or both. Since rule changes in 1978 ushered in the NFL’s passing era, every Super Bowl except five has featured a great quarterback on at least one of the teams. The exceptions included quarterbacks who were great for a short time.

Franchise quarterbacks are hard to find. Ryan, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are on their way out. Patrick Mahomes is the best of the next generation. There are a handful of talented quarterbacks looking to break through: Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence.

The NFL’s other 23 teams are searching for their quarterback. The Falcons will see if theirs is Ridder. Now is the right time to find out.

The Falcons had gotten all they could out of Mariota. He was a key to their running game working so well. Mariota’s lack of care with the ball was holding them back. His accuracy on deep passes was a problem, too. Per Football Outsiders, the Falcons rank 29th in adjusted offensive efficiency on third-and-long plays.

All of that isn’t on Mariota. Ridder will face the same problems with pass protection. The season-ending injury to Kyle Pitts thinned the playmaking corps. But Ridder is a good athlete, like Mariota, so he also can be an asset in the run game. There’s a chance the offense can find a new level if Ridder takes care of the ball better than Mariota and is a bit more accurate when throwing downfield.

Beyond making plays, Ridder will need to show he can lead his teammates and run the offense effectively.

Said Smith: “You want to see him operate, see how he handles the pressure, the stress of situational football, line of scrimmage, in between series.”

Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said Ridder has met his mandate of preparing himself to be the starter.

“Now it’s about going out there and having his teammates feel how he leads, how he is in the huddle, what his command is like,” Ragone said.

Obviously, the best outcome for the Falcons is that Ridder shows he can do all that and more. Then they can stop their search for Ryan’s successor and focus on building around Ridder. If Ridder’s play is poor or inconclusive, then the Falcons will have to get back on the quarterback treadmill.

The Falcons could try again in next year’s draft. Trading for or signing a veteran are the other options, though that usually means getting an over-the-hill veteran instead of a great quarterback in their prime. For examples this year see Ryan, Wilson and Carson Wentz. The best way to find a franchise quarterback is to draft one and help him reach his full potential.

It’s a weird seeing the Falcons do this quarterback experiment. For so long they had the luxury of not worrying about the game’s most important position. Ridder was 9 years old when Ryan made his NFL debut for the Falcons. Now Ridder gets his chance to become the franchise’s next great quarterback.