Three weeks ago, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder could’ve been benched after a disastrous performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Certainly, many fans and analysts called for it after he threw picks on back-to-back plays.
After Sunday’s huge divisional win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ridder has put himself in a position to get a season-long audition for the team’s starting job in 2024.
I’m not here to argue that Ridder has been without some terribly timed mistakes at the worst possible moments, but he does not look like the quarterback we saw struggle so evidently in the first half of the Jaguars game.
He’s making crisp throws. He’s using his legs. He’s getting the team’s best players involved in key moments. His decision-making and accuracy haven’t been perfect, but he’s been so much more consistent in both that the mistakes don’t distract as much from the progress.
If you're wondering why the Falcons aren't going to bench Desmond Ridder anytime soon, it's because he's 2-1 as a starter since London and has been one of the more efficient starters in the NFL in that timespan.— Cory Woodroof (@CoryWoodroof47) October 23, 2023
Chart from https://t.co/3zWN2eoSoI. pic.twitter.com/av8L6w7wlb
If that startles you, it’s because the mistakes have come at such dramatic moments, and have of course been too many. While he didn’t have a turnover in that Texans win, he threw three picks last week against the Washington Commanders and is credited with three fumbles against the Buccaneers.
Picks are easier to point fingers at than fumbles. Ridder objectively screwed up last week in crunch time in the red zone to stifle a Falcons’ comeback attempt, making it the most costly turnover of his career so far. The other two picks at least had to be somewhat his fault.
Sunday, one of the fumbles was directly on him, the one where Antoine Winfield Jr. punched out the ball on the 1-yard line while Ridder was scrambling in for what should’ve been a touchdown. He’s a slip-up away from running it in, and it’s evident that better ball security and a bit more urgency could’ve helped avoid the turnover on that crucial drive.
The other two, a sack-fumble and a rough exchange from Drew Dalman, Ridder gets the credit on the stat sheet but doesn’t necessarily deserve all the heat. They were just super costly in the grand scheme of the game since they were both in the red zone, and one of them was, again, on the stinking 1-yard line, a Falcon-y nightmare.
However, turnovers are turnovers, and the blame will always go on the quarterback even if he’s not 100% at fault. However, Ridder became the first NFL quarterback since at least 2000 to win a game after being credited with three turnovers in the red zone, per CBS Sports.
Desmond Ridder becomes first player to win a start with 3 red zone turnovers since at least 2000. pic.twitter.com/ONZ5SQtDMp— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) October 22, 2023
He also made the one play of the game he has to make to win, a beautiful throw to Kyle Pitts to help get the Falcons the yardage they needed to kick the game-winning field goal.
Rather than soak in the win and try to deflect in the moment the fumble on the goal line to the final result, Ridder owned his mistake right after the victory.
"I gotta protect the ball. Even when you think you're there or that close.. We all just gotta protect the ball and be better."@Kristina_Pink with Desmond Ridder after the #Falcons pull off the last second win and move to No. 1 in the NFC South pic.twitter.com/sOHhSjRrFY— NFL on FOX Podcast (@NFLonFOXPod) October 22, 2023
After the game, Arthur Smith gave a pretty firm defense of his quarterback, one who is 2-1 since the worst game of his career and has the 4-3 Falcons in first place of the NFC South.
Arthur Smith strongly supports Desmond Ridder:— Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) October 22, 2023
"Guy played phenomenal in the pocket. It's his 11th start, just got a good win, so let's give him some credit, give this team some credit. We found a way to win. I know this about Desmond Ridder: he's tough, and he's a winner."
There are two truths about Ridder right now that feel concrete. The first is that he’s playing so much better than he did in that two-game skid against the Detroit Lions and Jaguars. He’s actually playing like the kind of quarterback who can win games this season, not the guy struggling to hit 200 yards and make big throws when the team needs them we saw last year and early on this year.
However, he also has five red zone turnovers on his stat sheet after the last two games. As much as that pace doesn’t seem sustainable (in a good way), it’s also proof that mistakes like this will have to lessen if Ridder will keep his job past the 2023 season.
Smith seems more than content to keep Ridder as the team’s starter for the foreseeable future, and that feels like exactly what the team should do after these past three weeks. If we were headed into the Tennessee Titans game with a 2-5 record and a Ridder that looked no different, or even worse, than he did in London, Taylor Heinicke is likely your starter.
However, that’s not where the Falcons are. Ridder has made tangible, trackable leaps in these last three starts, and that’s got to be encouraging to a Falcons team that needs him to make those leaps to justify rolling with him behind center this season. If he keeps turning the ball over at this clip, the Falcons will have a call to make, but I think that’s unlikely.
The grand question of whether or not the Falcons found their long-term quarterback in the third round is yet to be answered. No matter how strongly you feel in either direction, it’s just still too early to gauge what Ridder’s ceiling is as a starting quarterback. We need to get to December (or hopefully January) to get a firmer grasp on his long-term development. That’s clearly what the Falcons are planning for.
After Jacksonville, you really worried about where he was. After Tampa Bay, it feels like he’s got the moxie and resolve to make real progress and get the Falcons to a winning record.
Atlanta has three very winnable games in the next three weeks against the likely Ryan Tannehill-less Tennessee Titans, the definitely Justin Jefferson-less Minnesota Vikings (who are coming off a big win), and the possibly Kyler Murray-less Arizona Cardinals, arguably the softest part of the schedule. None of those games feel like locks because this team plays a lot of close games where big plays and errors can swing the outcome, but Ridder can win those, especially if this offense makes its life easier and cashes in on more of the red zone trips.
If this team is 7-3 (or even 6-4) by the bye week, you’ll feel pretty good about this team actually making it to the playoffs (and Ridder being a legitimate reason of them getting there). If they falter in this stretch, it’ll likely be because Ridder struggled and the offense didn’t stop turning the ball over at the worst-possible moments. The defense feels rock solid.
Either way, we’ll have a much better idea of where Ridder and this team are after the bye once the Falcons welcome the New Orleans Saints to Atlanta after Thanksgiving. No matter how you feel about the young quarterback, his progress has convinced this Falcons team that he’s earned the right at this point to keep his job through the rest of the year. As long as he keeps getting better and can limit the mistakes, the calls for him to be benched will eventually lessen. That would be a great outcome for fans and the team alike.