FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Desmond Ridder had not yet been named the starter in Atlanta when Arthur Smith spoke on a specific challenge of rookie quarterbacks. He was talking about this challenge in the context of Kenny Pickett, the only quarterback drafted before Ridder in the 2022 NFL Draft.
This was two weeks ago, and the Falcons were about to face the Steelers, and Smith was - of course - asked about his pre-draft evaluation of Pickett.
Smith spoke on the maturation of the Steelers rookie quarterback in his first year. According to Smith, though, you can really see a rookie quarterback's growth when you watch them in one specific place: The pocket, when all eyes (whether it be that of defenders or fans) are on them.
A young quarterback getting to the point of feeling confident and comfortable within an ever changing - and often uncomfortable - pocket is something Smith said often goes unnoticed by consumers of the game. He said it's in the pocket where the truest difference between the college and professional ranks are felt the strongest.
"That's where the game is so different, the amount of time and the pressure players that you have in this league and how condensed these pockets are with people at your feet all the time, how you adjust," Smith elaborated. "It's easy to throw when no one is at your feet. So, that's where the game is so much different in my personal opinion from the college to the NFL."
To take it a step further: It's not only the most different, but it's the most difficult to replicate in a practice setting. Truth be told, it's nearly impossible.
Let's use Ridder as an active example.
The closest these coaches have come to seeing him in any type of recent, live-action moments happens when he runs the scout team (i.e. the opposing team's offense) during practice. As much as you'd love to mimic live-game scenarios, it's just not the same. No one is truly pinning their ears back on a blitz in practice. They may rep the blitz, but that's all it is: A rep. A simulation. A slower version of what's to come.
It's not live. It's not game speed. It's not "dirty." And therein lies the difference.
"Very few throws in an NFL game are made from a clean pocket," Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London said. "Most of them are what we call 'dirty pockets.'"
More often than not, London continued, someone's at your feet, tugging on your arm, taking a swing at the ball. You're having to maneuver up in the pocket as it collapses around you, or find a way to scurry out of it. If a quarterback has been drafted, he's experienced dirty pockets before, of course. But coaches say not at the rate they do at the professional level.
"A lot of times people try to make the transition to the quarterback position in the NFL and they haven't felt that," London said. "They haven't really felt the presence of a rush and a dirty pocket."
London was quick to add a "but" to his statement, though, because "he'd felt that."
And that "he" London is referring to? It's Ridder.
When you flip on Ridder's four years worth of tape when he was with Cincinnati, you see him operating within the confines of a pocket this staff would consider dirty. It's that volume that London believes actually helped Ridder assimilate into not just the NFL, but into the wrinkles of Smith's offense, too.
"To feel like, 'Look, I don't have all day to stand back here and pat the ball. I have to be decisive. I have to know my reads. I have to know my progressions and I have to get through them,'" London explained. "He knows what it feels like to play in a dirty pocket, and I think that's key for any young quarterback because it will be different."
There's much to learn about Ridder in the weeks ahead, and this will be one of the key notes to come back to when we evaluate these first starts of his career. The experience and production working within the pockets he found himself in in college is something this staff hopes Ridder will draw upon come Sunday, and even beyond Sunday.
Can his play-making ability within dirty pockets at the college level translate to productivity in similar, but speedier, moments as a pro? That's the question, and it's one that's answer can't be found on a practice field because it can never truly be replicated there.
With Ridder's first NFL start drawing near, we'll have the chance to get a clearer answer to this question soon enough.
The guys put in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the New Orleans Saints.