FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It was earlier this season when Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone got up in front of his quarterbacks and told his story, revealing his emotions.
He once sat where they did and harbored hopes of a long NFL career.
When Ragone, 43, began to speak to Falcons quarterbacks Desmond Ridder and Marcus Mariota, it was from a place of understanding and caution. Ragone understands what happened, why his NFL career didn’t last and his own culpability.
Perhaps more than anyone else in the Falcons’ building, Ragone grasps Ridder’s situation as he becomes Atlanta’s starting quarterback this week. Ragone told himself when he got into coaching, whenever he worked with quarterbacks, he would use his story to highlight what not to do early in an NFL career.
“I was going to press upon any backup quarterback, regardless of age, the importance of preparation, because that failed me,” Ragone said. “You always learn through either your experiences or your environment, and I felt that I failed in that regard and I obviously learned from my mistakes, where you have the ability to prepare yourself even though you’re not getting those reps.”
Ragone was a three-year starter at Louisville and three-time Conference USA player of the year. Ridder was a four-year starter at Cincinnati and a two-time American Athletic Conference offensive player of the year. Ragone was drafted in 2003 in the third round, like Ridder was this season by the Falcons, and began his career by running the scout team for the Houston Texans behind David Carr and Tony Banks.
Ragone didn’t understand the preparation part of becoming a pro. He treated scout team periods as ways to throw the ball around and get better physically and fundamentally. He treated reps as normal practice, not that every rep was critical in his own development.
Then Ragone was forced to play as a rookie. He started two games and completed 50% of his passes with no touchdowns and one interception. Those would be the only games he played for Houston and in the NFL.
After a stint as a radio host in Louisville, Ragone began coaching. By then, he realized where he screwed up and made it part of how he coached, stressing preparation and treating each week as if he were going to start. Ragone says now it was hard for him to learn that — and that it isn’t the easiest story to pass on to his quarterbacks. Each time, he relives his own failings.
Ridder, in the middle of his rookie season with Atlanta, was backing up Mariota. He had been struggling to pick up some of the nuances and tiny details necessary for success. Ragone’s message stuck.
“Him telling us what got him out of the league and what he felt he could have done better is only going to benefit us,” Ridder said. “He puts preparation on us, quarterback is heavy as all get out, but that’s just getting me to take the extra step.”
The next step is Sunday, when Ridder makes his first NFL start in New Orleans against the Falcons’ biggest rival: the Saints (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
FALCONS PRACTICE IS over, and the starters are making their way toward the locker room. They’ve been going for two hours. Lingering on the field is one of two men wearing red quarterback jerseys, looking for more.
Ridder, for every regular season practice this year, has worked with the scout team, pretending to be Justin Fields, Kenny Pickett, Matthew Stafford or whichever quarterback the Falcons are playing. It has been his role for 13 weeks, a combination of learning how to be an NFL quarterback while simultaneously mimicking others.
Then comes this: For anywhere between 15 minutes to a half-hour after practice, Ridder and a collection of Atlanta offensive players, who primarily spend their time on scout team, stay on the field running through plays. These are their reps to learn Atlanta’s offense.
“Going out there, working on little things, getting timing, running the right routes, knowing we got to line up fast,” receiver Frank Darby said. “Because when it comes down, we just got to be ready for the opportunity.”
Since Atlanta drafted Ridder in April, there has been a clear development plan. The Falcons wanted to push him but not overload him, see what he could handle without placing him in a position that could stunt his success.
In minicamp and throughout the season, Falcons coaches have praised how Ridder handled things mentally — from learning the playbook to picking up on his offensive scheme — and his maturity.
“As the season’s gone on, he’s gotten more and more comfortable with it and you’ve seen growth from there,” quarterbacks coach Charles London said in late November. “Just from him, whatever, whether it’s mastering the game plan or mastering this concept or understanding this progression, you’re seeing a little more of it each week.”
A “SLOW DRIP.” It’s a phrase Ridder hadn’t really heard until he’d arrived in Atlanta, but one he has become accustomed to, both in describing his first pro season and his whole career prior.
It’s verbiage Ridder learned from coach Arthur Smith — a connoisseur of coffee — soon after he was drafted. Smith had seen careers ruined by too much, too soon. Ridder was coming in to learn and then, potentially, start. He would not be thrust immediately into the top role.
“I just trusted him when he told me that,” Ridder told ESPN last month. “And that’s just how it’s been.”
It’s not all that dissimilar from Ridder’s high school and college experience. At St. Xavier in Louisville, Ridder said he ran the scout team his freshman and sophomore seasons before starting his junior and senior years. In college at Cincinnati, he redshirted as a freshman and ran the scout team before becoming a four-year starter.
“We’ve played some offenses that are kind of similar to ours, so a lot of times his reps are the other teams’ reps but they are similar plays, similar concepts,” London said. “He may go in there and look at the card and say, ‘Run it like we run this play.’
“That’s his rep and he understands that’s his rep.”
It’s a tricky balance. There have been points where Ridder wowed teammates with throws in practice, but to truly know the progress he has made is difficult because he’s being given the play on a card before it is run. It’s a play he’s not necessarily familiar with but also a scenario where sometimes he’s told to go to a certain spot no matter what.
Other times, he’s reading progressions based on Atlanta’s defense. So it’s a rep, sort of. But it is experience, something that could help Ridder for multiple reasons, including him not being tied to one style of play.
“It’s important when you’re developing the quarterback on scout team not telling him where to go with the ball,” Falcons safety Erik Harris said. “So he’s back there still going through progressions and stuff like that. He’s giving us amazing looks.”
Cornerback Dee Alford said if there’s a one-on-one practice matchup, Ridder is going after it like an opposing quarterback would. Even on the scout team, Alford said, Ridder has kept his aggressiveness.
Harris appreciated Ridder’s mobility and his arm. He said his decisions have improved. How can that translate to when he’s the starter? It’s unknown since Ridder hasn’t run the Falcons’ offense regularly in months.
Draft picks are never guaranteed successes anyway, and third-round quarterbacks don’t have a huge history of success as starters — the best in the past 20 years being Denver‘s Russell Wilson, Cleveland‘s Jacoby Brissett and former Texans and Falcons quarterback Matt Schaub. More often, third-round quarterbacks end up as career backups, such as Josh McCown, Mike Glennon and Colt McCoy, or washed out of the league entirely such as Ryan Mallett, David Greene or Ragone.
How Ridder will handle an offense that uses motion pre-snap 62.3% of the time — fifth-highest in the NFL — and an offense lining up in the pistol an NFL-high 37% of the time is unclear. But the physical skills, Atlanta’s defenders have seen some of it.
“Sometimes it’s natural, sometimes it’s what they ask for him because he’s doing the scout cards,” Falcons safety Richie Grant said. “But when he lets it go, he can spin it, man.
“He can really spin it.”
RIDDER’S FIRST PLAN was a success. He attached himself to Mariota to try and learn as much as possible. Whenever Ridder talked with the media, he said he told Mariota he’d be like a “little gnat” trying to pick up as much as possible.
Mariota was a willing teacher. He understood Ridder’s position having been a rookie starter in Tennessee in 2015, and a large part of any backup quarterback’s job is to help prepare the starter for Sunday. Ridder being as up-to-speed as possible would only be a benefit.
Mariota and Ridder were the first players in the building daily, going through plays and scripts early as preparation. Ridder, realizing where he was in his own rookie development, recognized the need to push himself in addition to the help Mariota and the coaches provided.
“Some of the ways I was doing it before obviously weren’t working enough to this point,” Ridder told ESPN in October. “So I felt like I could find something else better to help me understand and remember everything that’s in our game plan.”
Ridder began using the flash card learning tool Quizlet to help accelerate his process. Quizlet creates digital flashcards to help facilitate learning and memorization, part of what Ridder needed to jump-start the process. Prior to Quizlet, Ridder said, he was finding there were small details he wasn’t grasping.
Throughout his football life, he always has sought different ways to improve. This helped him marry formation and playcall together. The toughest thing to pick up, London said, is the playcall process. Often in college, it’s completely different than the NFL — signals or signs instead of calls — a mental transition as difficult as a physical one.
Ridder also brought in added assistance. While Quizlet helped him remember plays and formations, his wife Claire aided in repetition afterward. Every night for about 30 minutes, they’d go through the play script for the next day.
She’d read the play and then he’d rapid-fire it back to her, attempting to replicate the headset communication that then needs to be given out in the huddle.
“You can read through a list and say it, but that’s still not hearing it yourself and saying it,” Ridder said. “So being able to hear it and then say it and repeat it back, that’s one thing I learned, and you obviously have to do very well and do it quickly. That’s something that I picked up on quick.”
All of it has helped. In those post-practice workouts, Darby said Ridder has started finishing the playcall before London.
“From rookie minicamp to now, it’s like a whole different dude,” said running back Caleb Huntley, a post-practice regular. “Every practice, it’s little things he’s gotten better at. Accuracy, the deep ball, just different reads and where the ball needs to go on a given play.
“He’s made progress in that area and also being a leader.”
AT SOME POINT this season, it felt like the Falcons were going to get a look at Ridder, either because Atlanta was out of playoff contention or because Mariota struggled.
For a while, it looked like neither might happen. Mariota was leading Atlanta well enough to be a .500 team, in playoff contention as part of an uninspiring NFC South, despite beginning the year with the most dead cap space in the NFL with cap space to use (and potentially carry over to 2023).
Then things fell off. Atlanta has lost four of its past five games. Mariota hasn’t thrown for more than 200 yards in any of them. He has thrown nine interceptions — five of which have come in the past six games.
Where situationally Atlanta had been strong the first half of the season on third down, in two-minute situations and in the red zone, the Falcons faltered the past five weeks, converting one-third of their third down chances, scoring touchdowns on 53.8% of their red zone trips (No. 14 in the league) and scoring in the red zone 76.9% of the time, tied with Indianapolis for No. 27 in the NFL.
Moreover, Atlanta converted 11.5% of its third-and-long chances, described as third-and-7 or longer, from Week 9 on, ahead of only Washington, Houston and Carolina. And only 16.7% of Atlanta’s third-down conversions in total came by pass — ahead of only Houston and Carolina.
Smith said they have been looking constantly at potential decisions, but over the past month or so he said they were considering it more. They hope it is a benefit both in the short and long term.
“Really the last month or so, where we’ve been involved in some of these close games,” Smith said. “Where we were at in the season, where I thought we were trending, we’ve had a lot of progress offensively. Obviously, some things we’ve evolved to try and push to in the passing game.
“And we are close, but we need to get over that hump and we feel also, the growth in Desmond that we’ve seen … we feel very comfortable where he’s at right now.”
Handling situational football is one of the most important tenets of playing quarterback to Smith, and the Falcons were having issues. Atlanta wasn’t moving the ball, scoring or winning. It was time to make a change and see what Ridder can do.
There’s no guarantee it will be better than what Mariota did, because Mariota’s experience was valuable, and his ability to run helped create many opportunities for Atlanta’s running backs in zone reads. Ridder is a rookie, and there’s always a level of unpredictability there.
But he has been working for a year for this — really since he was a kid when he stopped playing linebacker in order to play quarterback full-time in sixth grade. What he has done as a backup and how he has prepared to start has led him here.
Ridder is getting a real shot as an NFL starting quarterback.