Desmond Ridder’s NFL debut is as Falcons as it gets

The Desmond Knight era in Atlanta began much as the short Marcus Mariota era and the long Matt Ryan era ended: with hope dashed by a catastrophic, chilling reversal of fortune.

With 2:13 left in the Falcons’ division game against the Saints, trailing by three points, Ridder had a chance to become a hero. He had been largely ineffective in the air and relied heavily on Atlanta’s ground game, but for the moment – in a do-or-die 4th-and-5 moment – he stayed in the pocket and fired a punch right into Drake’s arms London. For a moment, hope blossomed… and then the ball was knocked out of London’s hands, straight into the waiting arms of Bradley Roby. About 130 game seconds later, Ridder learned what Falcons quarterbacks through the generations have learned: This team is cursed. Good luck!

In the pillow fight that is the NFC South, the Falcons came into play 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.

During bye week, Atlanta, despite still being in the playoff hunt, made the decision to switch from Mariota to Knight, a move that apparently triggered Mariota. He decided to undergo surgery for what his agent called a chronic knee injury, an injury that has not kept him out of a game this season and has also ensured that he never misses a moment. Mariota is now on injured reserve, finishing his season and, in all likelihood, his 13-game tenure with Atlanta.

That meant Knight, Atlanta’s third-round 2022 draft pick from Cincinnati, would be the man for the rest of the year anyway, working without a net. Against Atlanta’s hated rival, Knight displayed all the hallmarks of an NFL rookie making his first career start: strong confidence in the running game, happy feet in the pocket, laser-like focus on a single safety blanket receiver. In Knight’s case, the comfort target was fellow rookie Drake London, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 draft and the kind of receiver that makes one-handed catches look easy. Ridder targeted London eleven times for 70 yards over seven receptions, all crucial and six useful.

Knight definitely needed the bailout, as he struggled with both basic and advanced stats. He was 13 of 26 for 97 yards on the day, leaning hard on Tyler Allgeier (139 yards, one touchdown) and Cordarrelle Patterson (52 yards, the other touchdown). He earned a total EPA (Expected Points Added) of -3.3 points and his CPOE (Completion Percentage Above Expected) was -18.6 – meaning Sunday’s Knight was a measurable downgrade from an expected QB performance.

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

The roots of the Knight/Mariota story go all the way back to the 2021 draft, long before either of them joined the team. In that draft, with six quarterbacks currently or recently starting in the NFL, Atlanta had the #4 pick and chose to go with tight end Kyle Pitts. That made for a partially rebuilt 2021, which featured Ryan shooting shots, though his days with the team were clearly in small numbers. After a failed attempt to bring in Deshaun Watson, Atlanta dealt Ryan to the Colts on March 21, 2022, the exact same day the team signed Mariota.

Any expectations Mariota had about him being the Falcons’ QB of the future should have evaporated a month after that, when Atlanta selected Ridder in the third round. Mariota defeated Ridder in the preseason to get the starting nod to start 2022. But after Atlanta inexplicably swept the NFC South in Week 8, Mariota struggled, throwing just five touchdowns against three interceptions in the past five weeks as Atlanta went 1-4. Three of those losses were by six or fewer points, with Atlanta scoring 17 points just once in that stretch. That made the move to the rookie easier, if not necessarily a good idea.

Besides hopefully squeezing the team, there’s another potential aspect to the decision to give Ridder snaps now. The 2023 draft will be another QB heavy, with Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s CJ Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis topping the pick. If Knight struggles in the next four games, he could theoretically put Atlanta in a better position to field another quarterback.

All things considered, Knight wasn’t terrible on Sunday, but he literally played the entire game from behind, reacting rather than acting as the Falcons’ defense couldn’t contain the dynamo that is Taysom Hill. Ridder took several sacks where he should have known – and will know soon enough – to throw the ball away. The match ended when Ridder, in a desperate final down, started running with five seconds left and went out of bounds, possibly losing track of how much time was left in the match.

The Falcons travel to Baltimore next week before finishing at home against Arizona and Tampa Bay. Knight is below midpoint for all three, and somehow the Falcons could still make it to the postseason.

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

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.

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