People say that quarterback is the most difficult job in sports. This isn’t entirely true: quarterback might be the most difficult job in the world. Each week, only 32 men get to be a starting NFL quarterback—and, to be charitable, only about 12 of those guys are good at it. There are more astronauts orbiting Earth up in the International Space Station than there are active Super Bowl-winning starting quarterbacks in the NFL. If you rounded up every rostered quarterback who has won MVP, they’d still be outnumbered by the living people who sat in the Oval Office. As such, drafting a quarterback is nearly always an exercise in blind faith, something closer to astral projection or dumb chance than any kind of comprehensible undertaking.
Still, Desmond Ridder, the record-breaking University of Cincinnati quarterback and presumed Atlanta Falcons quarterback of the future, has made success look fairly rudimentary. He’s good in such classical and obvious ways that it’s almost impossible to imagine him ever being bad. His scouting report reads like a feverish Mad-Lib of football cliches. At 6’3, 211 pounds and running a 4.52 second 40 yard dash, he has all the measurables that you need to succeed in the National Football League. A high-character locker room guy, he profiles as a plug-and-play starter after he wowed scouts at the combine with his football IQ. He’s a gamer. He’s a winner. With a 22-2 record over his last two years in school, he can make all the throws that pro quarterbacks need to be able to make.
But more than his right arm which can huck a football 50 yards on the fly, more than his legs which make him the fourth-fastest quarterback of the last decade, more than his brain which solves complex defensive fronts like the Monday crossword, Ridder’s greatest strength is his capacity to effect change. To watch him play football is to watch the process of evolution.
“I hope my legacy,” Ridder said, “is that I leave every place better than when I found it.”
On the most immediate level, Ridder’s tenure at Cincinnati was defined by the program’s vertiginous ascent. Prior to Ridder assuming the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2018, the Bearcats seemed poised to drift off into obsolescence. Following the dissolution of the Big East in 2013, the Bearcats slunk off to the American Athletic Conference, a hastily assembled hodge-podge of schools whose only commonality is that they were all orphaned by conference realignment and they’re all in America. Worse, the team stunk, slouching through consecutive 4-8 seasons in 2016 and 2017. Buried by the ignominy of losing, that 2017 season laid the invisible underpinnings for future success.
“I got there the same year as Coach Luke Fickell,” said Ridder. “As soon as he got there, it was all about being tough and nasty and really developing that blue-collar, chip-on-your shoulder mentality. And so that’s what we have built ever since I got there in 2017, creating that culture as a gritty program that doesn’t care about the outside noise and just keeps our head down and gets better every year.”
By the time Ridder took the reins in 2018, the Bearcats had thoroughly internalized their gravel-chewing, hard-hat identity and buffaloed the rest of the conference. During Ridder’s freshman and sophomore seasons, Cincinnati went 11-3 and 11-2 respectively, reaching the back-end of the national rankings by the end of each season. Ridder and Fickell had created something special, albeit not overwhelmingly so; finishing 18th in the country is certainly an accomplishment, but it’s hardly an enduring one—history doesn’t redound with the glories of the 17th runner-up. Come Ridder’s junior year, though, Cincinnati simply stopped losing, shedding their plucky upstartness and unleashing widespread annihilation in its place.
“In my early years at school, we were chasing Central Florida because they were the top dogs,” said Ridder. “The next year, we were chasing Memphis and lost to them in consecutive games at the end of the year. In 2020, we win the league. And last year, we defended it and made the playoffs. We had that target on our back; we knew that we were going to get everyone’s best. It became a point of pride: we never wanted to lose again.”
After narrowly losing the 2021 Peach Bowl to Georgia, the Bearcats were the undisputed best team in a Group of Five conference entering the 2021 season. Over the next 13 games, they established themselves as the undisputed best team in the history of any Group of Five conference and strong-armed themselves into the College Football Playoff in the process.
Suddenly, the Bearcats had SEC-caliber—if not NFL-caliber—talent at every position. As the Bearcats rolled through the American, their practices became the true proving ground. Ridder matched wits with Ahmed “Sauce” Gardner, a lockdown cornerback who the New York Jets picked with the fourth pick in the draft; wide receiver Alec Pierce (53rd pick, Indianapolis Colts), matched-up with Coby Bryant (109th, Seattle Seahawks), the 2021 Jim Thorpe Award winner; Alabama transfer running back Jerome Ford (156th pick, Cleveland Browns) contended with a prospect-laden front-seven led by defensive end Myaji Sanders (100th pick, Arizona Cardinals) and linebacker Darrian Beavers (182nd pick, New York Giants). Overall, Cincinnati boasted nine NFL Draft picks, the third most of any college.
“People criticized us because we didn’t play top competition and all that,” Ridder says, “but we were going up against top guys every single day at practice. Just being around each other gave the team a boost.”
As such, Ridder is possibly the most consequential figure in the University of Cincinnati’s 203 year history as the school prepares to join the Big 12 in 2023. There’s no real logistical or geographical reason for the Big 12 to want to add Cincinnati. Not even six years ago, the Big 12 rejected an earlier Cincinnati bid because an urban Appalachian outpost with a lean history of athletic success (their dance team is the only program to win a national title in the last 60 years) is a curious fit for a conference that’s primarily sprawled across college towns on the Plains. But now Cincinnati is good enough at football that everything else is fungible.
“Ridder has been the face of the Bearcats program as it has become a national program,” says Clayton Trutor, the editor of Down the Drive, SBNation’s University of Cincinnati blog. “He’s combined on-field production with a comfort in being the first person people think about when they think about Cincinnati football. I would suggest that Cincinnati becoming a member of the Big 12 would not have happened without the Ridder-driven excellence of the past few years.”
From a purely budgetary perspective, joining the Big 12 is a boon. As an AAC member, Cincinnati collected about $6 million in conference revenue in 2020; the Big 12 is projected to distribute approximately $369 million to each school over the next eight years, a little over $46 annually.
Through the end of the decade alone, Cincinnati will rake in hundreds of millions of extra dollars by simply switching conference affiliations. Already, the school has begun to toss around their newfound financial heft, lavishing Fickell with a $35 million contract extension through 2028 and approving plans to build a $70 million indoor football practice facility. By resuscitating Cincinnati’s foundering football team, Ridder functionally became one of America’s biggest benefactors of a public university, indelibly shaping the topography and tenor of Cincinnati’s future; he turned a diminishing program led by an insurrectionist into a shining exemplar of college footballing excess and success.
Naturally, Cincinnati’s glow-up runs parallel to Ridder’s individual rise. Despite the fact that he’s always been equipped with the physical profile and confidence of a blue chip prospect, he’s never had the pedigree to show for it. Whereas blue-chippers have their every movement and stray thought chronicled by wannabe-Twitter Zapruders, the recruitment of an unranked quarterback in Louisville doesn’t command that same frenzy; there isn’t much documentation of Ridder’s recruitment besides a barren profile on 24/7 and a short write-up in a recruiting wire service announcing his commitment to Cincinnati. A two-star recruit according to Rivals, Ridder was prepared to commit to Eastern Kentucky until a last-minute workout earned him an offer from Cincy.
“Almost exactly six years ago, I worked out with the Cincinnati receivers coach,” Ridder says, “and it went pretty well, so he said that he wanted to come back and bring Zac Taylor, who was the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator at the time.”
The problem, Ridder says, was that the follow-up workout was on the same day as the Kentucky Oaks, a race the Friday before the Kentucky Derby that’s an unofficially official holiday for Louvillians.
“That Thursday, the night before Oaks,” Ridder continues, “the Cincinnati coaches told me that I had to get a group of receivers together to throw to the next morning. I had to scramble to find guys, but I was able to do the workout that morning and then went to grab food and get dressed before heading to Churchill Downs. Like four or five hours later around 1 p.m., I get a call from Coach Tuberville [the then-Cincy coach and current US Senator], but I’m in the middle of the infield, which is a crazy, loud place. The quietest place near me was a porta potty, so I went in there and Cincinnati offered me a scholarship. I got one of the biggest calls in my life in a porta potty.”
Once at Cincinnati, Ridder was able to manifest his potential into tangible production. He was always big and fast and scrappy, it was simply a matter of fusing the component parts of his game into a coherent whole.
“When I met him, he was just a gangly, lanky kid and the athleticism and speed really came around as he grew into his body,” said Will Wolford, Ridder’s high school coach and a former NFL offensive lineman. “Today, even, he shaves, but not much. More than that, he’s a winner, which has nothing to do with all the measurables he has, but has everything to do his heart, mind and guts. He has certain physical gifts and he’s a smart kid who loves to work. What’s a better combo than that?”
Initially, Ridder played with an unpredictable, undomesticated streak, backing himself into corners and then leaning on his rare gifts to bail him out. “He was a guy that stepped in poop and turned it into gold,” says Trutor. “He had a way of converting third-and-seventeens that couldn’t be explained.” In Ridder’s sophomore season in particular, he ran aground on the level where talent alone could sustain him—that year, he completed a meager 55.1% of his passes and threw nine interceptions against just 18 touchdowns, all the worst marks of his college career. Frustrated by his lack of individual production, fans called for him to be benched, even as Cincinnati reached the AAC championship game and won the Birmingham Bowl.
Nonetheless, he achieved a greater understanding of the nuances of quarterback-dom as an upperclassman and emerged as an NFL prospect as a result. First, he fully weaponized his athleticism and rushed for 12 touchdowns in 2020, the high-water mark in the AAC that year. Next, he progressed as a passer, tossing for 3,334 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2021. This was the idealized version of what Ridder could become, aggressively hunting downfield plays, but informed by a tempered, professional sensibility.
Ridder’s grind is evident in his play. While the Patrick Mahomeses of the world look like they were born to play quarterback, there’s a studied, deliberate quality to Ridder’s game. He’s a quarterback not by birthright, but by hard work.
And to some, that’s precisely the problem. By most normal measures, Ridder is a first-round quality quarterback, but Ridder ultimately slid all the way to the middle of the third round; Kenny Pickett, a short-fingered wheeler-dealer type, was the only quarterback to hear his name called on the first night of the draft. To be sure, Ridder isn’t a perfect prospect; upon closer study, he has visible warts. Namely, he has a strange tendency to totally whiff on some throws, which has raised concerns about his accuracy. When Ridder misses, he misses, alternately airmailling makeable throws or spiking them into the dirt a few yards in front of his target. More damning, there’s a sentiment that he just doesn’t have that special it that all great quarterbacks share.
“He’s just not a very natural processor and not a very natural thrower,” an anonymous NFL quarterback coach told The Athletic. “He’s pretty robotic. He looks like a really good athlete who said, ‘I want to play quarterback.’ He trained hard at it and got good at it in college, but the things that Desmond’s not good at are more talent-based than they are skill-based.”
Nonetheless, this kind of old-school, gut-based eye-balling of prospects’ strengths and weaknesses is increasingly falling out of style in favor of a more advanced, data-driven line of thinking.
“Ridder is the clear-cut number one guy in this class,” says Sam Mestel, the founder of Evoluxion Analytics, an analytics company that provides draft consulting to NFL teams. “He looks sloppy when he throws, but that’s not a huge issue; people said the same thing about Justin Herbert. Our expected points added model has him in the 96th percentile as a quarterback prospect—the comparison for him would be Colin Kaepernick in that they were both initially underestimated, but could kill you with their speed and solid deep ball.”
With the Atlanta Falcons, Ridder seems uniquely well-positioned to succeed. Although he most likely won’t start immediately, the infrastructure and schematic vision is already in place for him to thrive when he does. Specifically, he’s exactly the kind of mobile quarterback that Falcons coach Arthur Smith covets. Even before knowing he would be a Falcon, Ridder named Ryan Tannehill and Marcus Mariota as “some of the guys I kind of model my game after.” Now, he’ll be backing up Mariota while playing for the coach who was the offensive coordinator that unlocked Tannehill’s potential in Tennessee.
Even greater than Cincinnati’s growth from an also-ran to a powerhouse or Ridder’s gridiron metamorphosis from a skittish freshman to a celebrated senior, though, is the mental one that Ridder undergoes before each game.
Off the field, he’s roughly as grounded and measured as a person who can anchor the a-block of drive-time football radio could possibly be; this is why Coach Wolford says that he’s a “great kid from a great family” or why Trutor describes him as “exactly the kind of guy you want representing your institution.” To be sure, Ridder is confident— “I was always gonna be a professional athlete in something,” he says, “football, basketball, baseball, cricket, it doesn’t matter”—but that just comes with the territory of playing quarterback.
“If you don’t believe in yourself,” Ridder says, “you’ve already lost. So much of the game is mental. To actually go out there and execute, you need to make sure you and your teammates are mentally and emotionally ready to perform your best.”
Similarly, more than his awards or draft stock, he cites the birth of his daughter in April 2021 as the most clarifying and orienting force in his life.
“When you become a dad,” Ridder says, “you learn how to be selfless, you learn to put everything aside for another person. Having a daughter has really made me lock in and realize that everything I do, I do for her.”
Nevertheless, the nice-guy girl-dad vision of Ridder quickly evaporates by kickoff each weekend. When it comes to football, he never stops talking—more precisely, he never stops talking shit. Before Cincinnati’s road win over Notre Dame, Ridder famously predicted that the crowd noise wouldn’t be an issue because “it shouldn’t be loud for long.” After the game, he ran to the Cincinnati supporter’s section and defiantly waved a school flag as Notre Dame Stadium emptied out. During the pre-draft process, he allegedly laid out to NFL teams how he planned on taking their veteran quarterback’s job. There’s a little bit of Tom Brady in him, the duality between the clean-cut frontman that we see during the week and the competitive psycho that we see on the weekend.
“It’s like a flip of a switch,” Ridder says. “When I step on the field, it’s straight demon time.”
How do you set your internal clock to demon time?
“Lots of preparation—and smelling salts.”
But amidst all this hype, amidst the upheaval that accompanies going from a high-schooler taking calls in a porta-potty to a father on the cusp of the NFL, Ridder isn’t stressed. This, he says, is the result of what he’s worked for. Through his constancy and clarity of purpose, he’s naturally a transformative force, but he himself is unmoved.
“I am who I am,” he says. “For me, nothing’s really changed–it’s the outside world’s perception of me that has.”
Editor’s Note: Desmond Ridder is represented by VaynerSports, a sports agency owned by Gary Vaynerchuk.