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Desmond Ridder's NFL debut ends with a thud, but Falcons still alive in NFC South race

The Desmond Ridder era in Atlanta has started pretty much the way the brief Marcus Mariota era and the lengthy Matt Ryan era ended: with hope squelched by a catastrophic, cringeworthy reversal of fortune.

With 2:13 remaining in the Falcons’ divisional matchup against the New Orleans Saints, down three points, Ridder got the chance to be a hero. He’d been largely ineffective through the air, relying heavily on Atlanta’s ground game, but in this moment — in a do-or-die fourth-and-5 moment — he remained in the pocket and fired a strike right into the arms of Drake London. For a moment, hope bloomed … and then the ball got punched out of London’s hands right into the waiting arms of Bradley Roby.

Approximately 130 game seconds later, Ridder learned what Falcons quarterbacks throughout the generations have learned: This team’s cursed. Good luck!

In the pillow fight that is the NFC South, the Falcons entered the game 5-8, the Saints 4-9, and somehow both were — and, amazingly, still are — alive in the playoff hunt, even with the Saints’ 21-18 victory.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 18: Desmond Ridder #4 of the Atlanta Falcons directs his team during the first half in the game against the New Orleans Saints at Caesars Superdome on December 18, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Rookie QB Desmond Ridder lost a close one in his first career start the Falcons on Sunday in New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Moving off Marcus Mariota, moving on to Desmond Ridder

Over its bye week, despite the fact that it’s still in the playoff hunt, Atlanta made the decision to switch away from Mariota and to Ridder, a move that apparently set off Mariota. He decided to have surgery for what his agent termed a chronic knee injury, an injury that neither kept him out of a game nor caused him to miss a snap this season. Mariota is now on injured reserve, ending his season and, in all likelihood, his 13-game tenure with Atlanta.

That meant Ridder, Atlanta’s third-round 2022 draft pick out of Cincinnati, would be the man for the rest of the season no matter what, working without a net. Against Atlanta’s loathed rival, Ridder displayed all the characteristics of an NFL rookie making his first career start: heavy reliance on the running game, happy feet in the pocket, laser-like focus on one safety-blanket receiver. In Ridder’s case, the comfort target was fellow rookie Drake London, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 draft and the kind of receiver who makes one-handed catches look easy. Ridder targeted London 11 times for 70 yards over seven receptions, all of them crucial and six of them beneficial.

Ridder sure needed the bailout because he struggled by standard and advanced metrics. He was 13 of 26 for 97 yards on the day, and leaned hard on running backs Tyler Allgeier (139 yards, one touchdown) and Cordarrelle Patterson (52 yards, the other touchdown). He totaled an EPA (Expected Points Added) of minus-3.3 points, and his CPOE (completion percentage over expected) was minus-18.6 — meaning Sunday’s Ridder was a measurable downgrade from an expected QB performance.

Still, there were signs of hope. With 11:07 remaining in the game and Atlanta down 21-10, the defense swarmed Andy Dalton and, after a punt, gave Ridder the ball at the New Orleans 32. He managed — with substantial help from his running backs — to push the Falcons into the end zone and convert the subsequent two-point attempt.

The roots of the Ridder/Mariota story stretch back to the 2021 draft, long before either joined the team. In that draft, which featured six quarterbacks currently or recently starting in the NFL, Atlanta held the No. 4 pick, and opted to go with tight end Kyle Pitts. That set up a partial-rebuild 2021, where Ryan was taking snaps even though his days with the team were clearly in the small numbers. After a failed attempt to land Deshaun Watson, Atlanta dealt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts on March 21, 2022, the same day the team signed Mariota.

Any expectations Mariota may have had about being the Falcons’ QB of the future should have evaporated a month after that, when Atlanta selected Ridder in the third round of the draft. Mariota beat out Ridder in preseason to get the starting nod to begin 2022. But after Atlanta inexplicably seized the NFC South in Week 8, Mariota struggled, throwing just five touchdowns against three interceptions over the next five weeks as Atlanta went 1-4. Three of those losses were by six or fewer points, and Atlanta topped 17 points once in that stretch. That made the move to the rookie easier, if not necessarily a no-brainer.

Beyond hopefully juicing the team, there’s another potential aspect to the decision to give Ridder snaps now. The 2023 draft is shaping up to be another QB-heavy one, with Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s CJ Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis topping the crop. If Ridder struggles in the next four games, he theoretically could put Atlanta into a better position to draft another quarterback.

All things considered, Ridder wasn’t horrendous on Sunday, but he was playing from behind the entire game, reacting rather than acting since the Falcon’s defense couldn’t contain the dynamo that is Taysom Hill. Ridder took multiple sacks where he should have known — and soon enough will know — to throw the ball away. The game ended when Ridder, on a desperation final down, took off running with five seconds remaining and ran out of bounds, possibly losing track of how much time was left in the game.

The Falcons travel to Baltimore next weekend before finishing up at home against Arizona and Tampa Bay. Ridder is slated to be under center for all three, and somehow, the Falcons could still reach the postseason.


Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.



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