Earlier this week, Arthur Smith said Desmond Ridder is the starter for the Atlanta Falcons this year. Things can change, words can be stretched and scrutinized closely, but the foregone conclusion continues to be the foregone conclusion. The second-year pro is getting the chance to run this offense, and the Falcons are banking a lot on that going well.
They’re doing more than hoping, actually. By drafting Ridder last year and anointing him the starting quarterback in 2023, they’re inviting the mockery and approbation of the larger NFL and NFL media landscape, which simply can’t believe they’re giving the keys to Ridder when they could be trying to pursue Lamar Jackson. They’re ensuring people will not be turning out in droves in Week 1 to see their electric quarterback, and that many fans will instead by and large need to be coaxed into believing Ridder and these Falcons are for real. And they—and I mean Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot here—are to a pretty significant extent staking their job security and the team’s success on a player they seem to know is unlikely to ever be among the league’s elite at the position.
This is a risk, in other words, and it points to a truly impressive groundswell of support for Ridder in the organization. Atlanta could have hit the eject button with a pursuit of Lamar Jackson, a mid-tier addition like Jacoby Brissett or even Taylor Heinicke if he was declared the likely starter, or a far-from-impossible trade up in the NFL Draft to snag Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud, or Will Levis, depending on who falls out of the top two. Instead, a franchise bereft of recent success will try to gin up wins with a third round quarterback from the weakest quarterback class in recent memory, and they continue to say they’re excited about it. It was not a lack of options that brought the Falcons to this moment, but conscious decisions and real faith in their second-year quarterback.
Naturally, this has riven the fanbase into warring camps, with a fair number of fans thinking it’s a huge mistake to ride with Ridder, another fair number insisting Ridder will be terrific, and the large group that just wants to see what happens, whether they’re wary or excited. I want to look at why the Falcons are doing this as soberly as possible (I have my own biases, naturally), as well as how they intend to make him successful and whether it will work out. Let’s do that now.
There are are a few threads to pull on here.
Desmond Ridder’s abilities
We’ll start with Ridder himself. As I’ve written multiple times before, my belief that Ridder was viewed as a long-term solution for the Falcons stems from Dwaune Jones’ comments in the June after he was drafted. The assistant director of college scouting for the Falcons said this to team reporter Tori McElhaney:
“Winning is contagious and Desmond Ridder’s a winner,” Jones said. “It permeates the whole building because he’s a guy who’s going to have command of the entire locker room. He’s going to demand respect as well. A guy like that, he’s going to do his absolutely best to hit his ceiling.”
That appears to be a shared opinion in the building, given that the team keeps raving about his leadership and intangibles, and it helps explain their investment in him. A Falcons regime that is so fixated on culture—building it, maintaining it, having it lead to success—wants a quarterback who can be a leader of men and won’t be out-worked. Ridder is, judging by teammates’ comments and the team brass, the culture fit they’ve been looking for at the position, and someone they believe will carry the mental and emotional weight of being the franchise quarterback with aplomb.
The Falcons clearly are aware that Ridder is never going to be Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, etc., and we don’t know how good they actually think Ridder can be. A good guess for what they think he can approximate is Tennessee-era Ryan Tannehill or his NFL.com comparison Alex Smith, a reasonably mobile passer who makes smart decisions, avoids mistakes, and has the toolkit to keep an efficient passing attack humming. Ridder is a good athlete who can move around well in the pocket and take off when he needs to, can make the downfield throws this team will want him to, and has Arthur Smith talking a lot about his ability to operate an offense, especially on third and fourth downs. If that all seems a bit underwhelming when the Falcons had Matt Ryan for over a decade and Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson have been available and connected to Atlanta the past two offseasons, well, I get it. The Falcons very clearly believe Ridder won’t underwhelm.
I believe the Falcons originally wanted to draft Ridder to sit and learn from Matt Ryan for a year—that’s a whole separate article, but Arthur Blank’s clear ties to Watson appeared to blow up the front office’s plans—and they drafted him with the hope that he’d turn into a starter. Getting stuck on the fact that they got him in the third round is fair up to a point—the NFL viewed him as a third round talent in one of the weakest quarterback classes in recent memory, which is not a ringing endorsement of his abilities—but the Falcons banked on being able to wait and snagged their guy regardless. It’s unclear what they believe his ceiling is, but whatever you might believe about this team’s competence, if they thought he was going to be an anchor on the team’s fortunes, they wouldn’t be starting him.
Ridder was the plan, in other words, and if the road here was filled with draft day drops and inexplicable Marcus Mariota extended starting stints, we’re seeing the plan unfold now. The question of whether he can ever be among the NFL’s better quarterbacks or will just settle in as a pretty good remains to be seen, but I think the Falcons are very confident he’s not going to flop.
The benefits of not paying top dollar for a quarterback
If Ridder is never among the league’s best quarterbacks, it stands to reason that he’ll command something less than a top quarterback’s salary. That doesn’t mean he’ll be cheap if he remains the starter for the long-term, but he might clock in a few million to $10 million a year under the juggernauts of the league. That money can and will go to other needs, allowing you a little more wiggle room with the roster. The question becomes how good Ridder is versus a top-tier quarterback who commands the higher dollars and whether the difference in play is worth that money, a question that the Falcons will have to weigh carefully if the Ridder experiment turns into a long-term solve.
In the short-term, you have a lot more than that to work with, given that Ridder is absurdly affordable for 2023, 2024, and possibly 2025, depending on how the Falcons approach his contract if he’s still the starter by then. Ridder is set to have a cap hit of under $1 million this year, just over $1 million in 2024, and just under $1.5 million in 2025. The amount of cap space you have to work with versus, say, a contract where you’re setting $30 or even $40 million in cap for your quarterback is staggering, and it gives Terry Fontenot and company the flexibility to invest heavily in the rest of the team. If 2023 is a building year, with Ridder under center the expectation would be that 2024 and 2025 would be the seasons in which you make a championship push, given that you’ll be able to take what should be a considerably improved 2023 squad and pump a lot more cash into improving it next year.
That leads us into our next point.
The desire to build a complete roster
Fontenot has been pretty transparent about what’s important to him: Building up the kind of complete roster he believes is necessary for a quarterback to have success. A fixture in the New Orleans front office late in Drew Brees’ run there, where the longtime quarterback’s arm was a wet noodle and he was already planning his post-playing career of fake deaths in commercials and terrible commentary, Fontenot is well aware that you can win with a quarterback with limitations if you build an environment and roster that compensates for those weaknesses. That never led to a Super Bowl in New Orleans—indeed, it led to some hilarious playoff failures—but there’s clearly a belief that building it right can get this Falcons team to the promised land.
The naked-in-the-light-of-day tradeoff here is this: Fontenot and the coaching staff have found a quarterback they love and think is good enough to win with, but it hinges on their ability to do the hard work of building a tremendous Falcons team around him. They’re confident that with the money they’ll save over acquiring, say, Jackson, they can put together a 53 man roster that’s among the league’s best in the not-too-distant-future. They believe Ridder can get the job done, but if he can’t, they’ll have the high-powered shell of a great roster to drop someone else into. It’s about flexibility in the pursuit of greatness, and about taking the road less traveled in a league where pursuing a quarterback feels like the end-all be-all. Depending on your perspective, that’s either obnoxious hipsterism or a wise path.
How are they going to make it work?
As you’d guess from the above, it’s about building an elite team around him and working to maximize his abilities. It’s that simple, and that difficult.
The Falcons are banking on being the 2017 Eagles, the 2012 Ravens, the 2007 and 2011 Giants, or the 2002 Buccaneers, the five Super Bowl winning teams of the past two decades who managed to win it all without an elite quarterback. You can throw the 2021 Rams in there if you’d like, given that Matthew Stafford was not exactly operating at the peak of his powers by the end of that season, but that’s fuzzy enough that I won’t include it. (Note: I was remembering Stafford’s somewhat shaky Super Bowl and conflating it with his playoffs overall, where he was actually excellent. Never mind). Those teams all had tremendous defenses that made winning possible, offenses with quality enough supporting casts to help their quarterbacks out, and with the exception of the Bucs, good enough QBs to win with even on off days from the defense.
Atlanta’s a long way away from being that kind of team—their defense has been objectionable for most of the last decade—but that’s clearly what they’re building toward. There is no other reasonable path forward if you have a quarterback that you don’t firmly believe can be top 5 or even top 10 in the NFL—if Atlanta does believe that, they’ve sold it very poorly—and the way they’ve spread their money around suggests they believe a complete team is the best way forward.
The trick here is that it’s not easy to build that caliber of team, which is why so many squads are reliant on a great quarterback to lift their fortunes. A quarterback is one player, the most pivotal on the field, and one at the level of a Mahomes, a Jackson, a Jalen Hurts, or a Tom Brady (may he never know peace), and so forth masks a lot of weaknesses and gives your team a high floor. To get to that elite level to win big with Ridder, assuming Ridder doesn’t prove to be much better than expected, you need to upgrade your running back group, wide receivers, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker group, cornerbacks, maybe safeties, and roster-wide depth, and continually churn them to get better. Atlanta might be a playoff squad if things break right in 2023, but to get to the point of deep playoff runs and potential championships, they need free agency and the draft to be stellar year after year.
Building every corner of that roster will be a little easier with more cap space to work with, but unless Ridder pans out in spectacular fashion, the supporting cast and overall talent level will need to be higher.
Will it work?
Who the hell knows isn’t a very satisfying answer, so I’ll try to go a little deeper.
To some extent, yes, I believe this is going to be a successful experiment. The Falcons are positioning themselves to have a far better roster than in 2022, a year where they won seven games despite their very real weaknesses and the up-and-down play of Marcus Mariota. It’s not a huge leap for me to say that Ridder, operating cleanly in an offense that will provide him with at least slightly better weapons, will be more productive as a passer than Mariota was, and skilled enough with his legs to give defenses some problems when he wants to tuck it down and run. That plus a likely-to-be-terrific ground game, improved defense, and one of the better special teams units in football will likely translate to more wins and more success even if Ridder doesn’t wow anybody. In a 2023 season where improvement is the goal, we’ll likely look back at the season ahead and say that Ridder was solid.
And make no mistake: I think Ridder is solid. His four game audition only gave us clues about how he’ll fare, but the benefit of starting the season with experience under his belt, a hopefully improved group of pass catchers that should feature a healthy Kyle Pitts, and what we do know about his skill set suggests to me that he’ll be a solid quarterback for Atlanta at worst. Obviously we’d love for him to be much, much more than that, but investing that kind of hope seems unwise until we see it with our own eyes.
Long-term there are bigger questions about the viability of the approach. Ridder will need to be a good NFL starter and the Falcons will have to build a killer roster around him, and even teams that have won with solid-to-good quarterbacks have tended to get some stretches of amazing play out of them when they needed it most. Is Ridder a, say, top 20 quarterback who is capable of playing like a top 10 one for stretches and in big games? Or is he in the bottom third or so of NFL quarterbacks annually, putting together solid but unspectacular seasons with no extra gear? If it’s the former or better, Atlanta is going to be a force to be reckoned with. If it’s the latter, Atlanta’s margin for error shrinks significantly and Ridder may not be long for the starting job.
The oft-cited logic that if Ridder crumbles this year the team can simply pivot in 2024 is pretty sound, though that isn’t without risk. If the Falcons wind up being a mid-tier team but Ridder clearly isn’t good enough, they’ll have to give up a raft of assets to move up for a quarterback in the NFL Draft. The alternative is probably pursuing a high-priced veteran—hell, maybe Lamar Jackson is available again, except without Baltimore holding the “we can match anything” trump card—and that will come with significant costs, as well. The seat will also likely be hotter for at least Arthur Smith in Atlanta, which could encourage shorter-term thinking for a team that spent this offseason trumpeting the value of their long-term plan. The ideal scenario here isn’t “let’s take a look at Desmond Ridder,” but “Desmond Ridder is it.”
The long and short of it is that Ridder is going to get the opportunity to prove not just that he’s a starting quarterback in the NFL, but a damn good one, the kind a front office and coaching staff is justified in building a future around. Whether he blossoms or wilts will go a long way toward determining how high this team’s ceiling is going forward, and whether their planning and evaluation skills are worth investing our Super Bowl hopes and dreams into. Clarity will only come with time.