Michael Lombardi: NFL second-year players can make or break seasons

123
 

The risk/reward of second-year NFL players.

Farming land is a lonely and stressful job.  The work is filled with anxious moments, requiring confidence without visual evidence and incredible patience.  It also requires foresight as farmers lack total control with so many variables, most provided by mother nature, which create recurring problems.  Experienced farmers gained incredible wisdom through the knowledge of the terrain. They know what to expect when the seeds fertilize, when the water is perfectly sprinkled, and the sun is shining at the right moments in the right spots.  They can predict problems before they occur—their insights, most acquired through tough times, allow them to curtail a potential disaster. 

 

Top NFL Resources:

A working farmer lives in a different world than most—relying on their work today to gain a profit six months later.  This is counterintuitive to many of us.  We look for instant gratification. Everything is on-demand—movies, food, shopping for anything.  Waiting is a thing of the past.  We want it now, and dammit, we better get it, or else we are going to complain—loudly.     

This “give it to me now” carries over into our expectations for sports teams.  After the draft, we grade the teams for how they drafted, then we grade the off-season and never look at the years past.  We could care less about the 2022 draft. That ain’t now, so why pay attention?  Yet, the most important players on every NFL field for OTA’s and Mini Camp are the players acquired last year—either from free agency, the draft, or other means.  (The ones that keep hearing are “Buzz Light Years” ahead of last year.)  

Those secondyear players hold the key to the team’s success more than any rookie or draft pick fresh off his draft grade.  And much like a farmer, the head coach must develop confidence without the evidence of watching games or having practice.  They both must invest time and energy into the something/someone without guaranteeing there will be a reward.  And they must use their wisdom of the past to help their decisions in the future. 

The best example of this is occurring in Atlanta.  Arthur Smith head coach of the Falcons has planted Desmond Ridder as his starting quarterback for the 2023 season.  There is no other second-year player in the NFL that has more on his shoulders in determining the success of the franchise this season than Ridder. Smith and the front office made this decision in the off-season after watching Ridder play in the final four games of the 2022 season.  Was this a wisdom-based decision, or the only option?  Not sure anyone is willing to say right now. It will depend on the outcome after the season.  If it went great, everyone will be saying, “We all knew Ridder was the right guy.”  If it goes bad, we will hear from unnamed sources, “I knew this was the wrong path all along.”   For the record, the unnamed sources are geniuses with an eraser. 

When re-watching those final four Falcons games, Smith used his creative offensive mind to strip away the complications, attempting to make the game a little easier for Ridder.  What Smith wanted was for Ridder to get his feet wet and feel the escalation of the speed from practice to a live NFL game.  He coached Ridder not to take chances and protect the ball at all costs, which he did. Ridder didn’t throw an interception in those four games.  (He did fumble three times in four games, losing two.).

The overall offensive design didn’t afford Ridder the opportunity to make many plays as he averaged just 6.16 yards per attempt. It wasn’t until Ridder’s fourth game, Week 18 against a Bucs team with nothing to play for, that Ridder threw his first touchdown pass.  During those four games, Ridder was working on half-field reads, high-low concepts where Ridder was presented with the option of throwing to receiver one or two, depending on who was open—always to the same side.  There was no reading of coverage or working through the progression. Once Ridder turned his head to the side he was throwing, the ball was headed that way.  If the receivers were covered, Ridder held the ball slightly longer and either took the sack (he was sacked nine times in four games) or threw the ball away.  Ridder was overly careful with the ball, and because he doesn’t have (at least not yet) pinpoint accuracy, he wasn’t risking making a tight-window throw.

Ridder can evoke tremendous confidence in Smith because of his insatiable work ethic and pristine character.  Ridder has everything you want your starting quarterback to have, from his leadership skills, his ability to prepare, and his experience of being a part of a winning team.  What kept Ridder from being a first-round pick in the 2022 draft was his inconsistencies throughout the game.  Those peaks and valleys created doubts, and those doubts couldn’t offset his high-level character.  Yes, he is a great kid, but can he play well enough?  Many believed no.  Smith thinks yes.  Much of the confidence Smith possesses comes from knowing the kid—falling in love with the character which will then allow the talent to surface with consistency.  Often as coaches and executives, we tend to “overlove” the character, ignoring the flaws—or at least rationalizing them away. 

Currently, at DraftKings, the Falcons’ win total sits at 7.5, and they are +250 to win the NFC South.  Anyone making that bet believes Ridder will become a viable starter, believing that Smith will expand the passing game around Ridder, develop his skills to read a progression and not allow the defensive backs to read his head to the ball.  In addition, bettors betting on Atlanta trust the skill players accumulated in Atlanta will provide Ridder with an offense that only requires him to deliver the ball on time, allowing Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson to do the heavy lifting.  Yet, that logic doesn’t work.  The quarterback enhances the skill players; the skill players don’t enhance the quarterback.  We witnessed this last season when 49ers quarterback Trey Lance was throwing to the same group of receivers that Brock Purdy eventually was using—yet Lance couldn’t move the ball.  Purdy could.  The quarterback is the point guard. When he makes the right pass at the right time with the right accuracy, the receiver’s talent shines brighter.  Don’t fall for “the better skill as the salvation for the quarterback.”  That’s a big fat lie. 

Last year, Smith used the 6-back offense with Marcus Mariota, highlighting Mariota’s running skills and the Falcons’ depth at running back.  Ridder isn’t the runner Mariota was, which will force Smith to modify the offense.  Last season, when the Falcons fell behind, they didn’t have a drop-back passing game to get them back into the game.  With Mariota, they relied on play action to adequately throw the ball.  Even then, the Falcons’ passing game was rather pedestrian ranking 31st in passing attempts, 31st in yards and 24th in touchdown passes.  If the Falcons couldn’t run the ball, they were screwed.   Will all this change because they now have Bijan?  Will all this change because Ridder is the starter?  Like a first-time farmer, call me skeptical.  I have a hard time having confidence without evidence.    

Smith by the nature of his offensive design will slow the game down and will use time off the clock, attempting to keep the game close.  Smith understands he must play from in front. He cannot play an up-tempo style if he expects to win more than seven games.  This pattern of play for Atlanta is their only approach, and when they can win the fourth quarter, they can win games. Falcons games this year will come down to one or two possessions in the fourth.  For Atlanta to hit their over total, fourth-quarter execution will be vital, and this will require Ridder to make accurate throws on critical downs.  Can he? 

Smith must think so because like the farmer, he is investing in being right today for a future payout.  If the Falcons have a bountiful crop this year, Smith’s patience will be rewarded.  If they don’t, there might be another farmer coming to work the fields down in Flowery Branch.