How Falcons rookie QB Desmond Ridder graded his first NFL start

Desmond Ridder's first NFL start didn't quite go the way he'd hoped. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS – Desmond Ridder tapped the podium inside the Caesars Superdome early Sunday evening, waiting for his first postgame news conference to begin. The moment he’d dreamed about for years and waited months for as Marcus Mariota’s backup quarterback had come and gone, and it wasn’t how the Atlanta Falcons quarterback anticipated.

There were things Ridder did well and things he didn't in a 21-18 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in his first NFL start.

Ridder missed on his first four passes. His first completion came on a screen to tight end MyCole Pruitt. When the game was done, Ridder had completed 13 of 26 passes for 97 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions -- the first time a Falcons starting quarterback had fewer than 100 yards passing since Matt Ryan had 15 against Tampa Bay in 2009, a game he left because of injury.

It was not the type of day Ridder wanted. In reality, it’s probably the type of day many should have expected, as he gave himself a “C-minus-to-D” grade.

“I thought it was really good in the execution of coming out, getting the playcall, getting to the line of scrimmage with plenty of time on the play clock,” Ridder said. “Post-snap, I felt like I could obviously have been better.”

All week, Ridder wanted to treat as much as he could similarly to prior weeks, which meant at 9:52 a.m., Ridder left the visitors locker room and walked down the small tunnel with quarterbacks coach Charles London trailing him. In a black-and-red warmup, black tights and black Nikes with red trim, he walked onto an NFL field as a starting quarterback for the first time.

He located the play clocks and then ran the length of the field to get warm before standing at the 35-yard line, throwing 10-yard warmup passes. This was similar to the first 13 games of the season -- Atlanta’s coaches had stressed not changing anything up in terms of preparation or pregame activity because the continuity could help him.

“My routine hasn’t changed that much,” Ridder said. “Just going out there doing the same thing.”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith watched Ridder throw passes from afar about 15 minutes later. Ridder threw end zone tosses at 10:14 a.m. The quarterback-receiver warmup over, they huddled and Ridder talked briefly with every pass-catcher.

Then he walked by himself and sat on Atlanta’s bench. A fan wearing a Cordarrelle Patterson jersey too far back for Ridder to hear kept asking for his autograph. Ridder fiddled with his phone and then walked along the sideline to where his wife, Claire, and daughter were waiting. His agent, Brian McLaughlin, had also flown in for the occasion along with about 20 of Ridder’s family and friends.

It had been a hectic couple of weeks for Ridder -- going from backup to starter, from relative anonymity to the limelight -- and this was a small chance for some pregame normalcy as a mix of Vanessa Carlton’s "A Thousand Miles" played over the Superdome sound system. The song changed and Ridder, with a big smile, started singing the lyrics of Drake’s "Nice for What" to his daughter. The entire time, he had a football in his hand.

At 10:25 a.m., Ridder said goodbye and walked back toward the locker room. He tossed the ball onto a pile and left the field with receivers coach T.J. Yates.

He had a start to make.

Smith felt Ridder came out too excited -- he took deep shots early and didn’t connect -- but eventually settled down. Ridder wanted that first drive to be perfect. It was anything but -- a three-and-out with no completions. New Orleans didn’t blitz early, forcing Ridder to make reads.

Ridder knows he needs to be better as a passer. He lamented trying to be too precise on deep passes instead of giving his receivers a chance to make a play, particularly a throw to receiver Olamide Zaccheaus early on.

“He was amped up early,” Smith said. “We were aggressive early. There were a couple of other things I felt he was pressing. But he did a nice job settling down.”

Ridder found more of a rhythm, both in the offense and his own game, after the first two drives. He was aided by what the Falcons do best: running the ball. Fellow rookie Tyler Allgeier had a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown, building on what has been a promising rookie season. Atlanta ran for a season-high 231 yards and a season-best 5.92 yards per rush.

“I told Desmond yesterday whether he threw for 400 yards or threw for 100, this wasn’t going to define his career,” Smith said. “There’s a lot to learn from. The things I saw him operate, procedure-wise, he had a lot of command.

“The next step is we’ve got to continue to find solutions and make more plays.”

After the game, linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski pulled Ridder aside. It had not been Ridder’s best game. And the seven-year veteran reminded Ridder of something Smith tried to impart earlier in the week.

“When I walked back in the locker room, he said, ‘Hey, you know what you did?’" Ridder said. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You started. You went out there and played an NFL game, and that’s not something to take for granted.’

“It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but at the end of the day, we went out there and did something that I’ve been trying to accomplish for my entire life.”

And it should only get better from there.