It was during the Washington game in Week 4 of the 2021 season when the headsets went out. Normally used for Arthur Smith and the coaching staff to communicate with Matt Ryan on the field, there was only silence. And without missing a beat, Ryan continued. A decade's worth of experience improvising made it just a small frustration.
With a game won by Washington by the slim margin of four points, calling a timeout in that situation because of a headset glitch was not something that was in the cards. This happens more often than you may think. Headsets go out. Communication fizzles. Injuries mount. Defenses change their look. In all, the role of a quarterback is to be a crisis manager, and to do so with ease. It's an underrated skill of which every quarterback must have.
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And unlike many skills that separate the one percent of players who make it to the league versus everyone else, this skill can be taught and repped.
"You try to build those (situations) in because you don't want to sit there and call a timeout every time," Smith said. "That's their job to fix things at times, too."
Charles London, the Falcons quarterbacks coach, called this the art of rescuing oneself.
"We talk to the guys a lot at the position that they have to learn to rescue themselves and rescue the team," London said. "During a game day, we're not out there helping them. They have to rescue themselves and get the guys in the right spot. They've gotta know what to do. They've gotta point (the offense) in the right direction. It's part of the job of being a quarterback to try to point them in that direction."
When it comes to being able to do this, it's as much mental as it is physical. It's a game of high stakes chess, and the only way to perfect this part of a craft is to thoroughly learn it. And that's where this starts for Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder.
"Our job as a coach, you're really a teacher," Smith said. "Ultimately, they're the ones that are out there on the field so we are trying to educate them and understand so we're in sync."
Smith doesn't want to make this teaching easy on Mariota or Ridder, either. There's a lot of ways you can install to the point of comfortability, but Smith said the ultimate goal is to challenge them so they understand the "why" behind the play call.
You push them every day to understand that, Smith said. It's one of the things Mariota said he likes best about this staff.
"I think they challenge us," Mariota said. "They want us to understand why we run certain concepts, what coverages we're running against. For us, it's mentally stimulating because it's challenging to look at it from different perspective."
"I think what's really cool about Art and this staff is that they try to stimulate your mind constantly. There's always brand new ideas. There's always something that we always talk about. So, for me, I enjoy that part of it."
It's good that there is mental stimulation and enjoyment from Mariota's perspective because the act of doing this, of understanding the deeper meaning behind a play call, often involves repping it to the point of being comfortable doing it on the fly. The repetition of that can sometimes be mundane.
It's doing the same things over and over again until there is no thinking, just doing. There's no question about what comes next, there's only the answer.
And the time to do this comes during the offseason programs and training camp.
"Now we're putting in what we're going to call a check system with our offense. We want plays designed within plays," Ridder said. "... For us as quarterbacks - mentally - it's adding new checks in every single day and then coming out (to practice) and repping them against the looks that we want to see."
It's doing this until the wheels fall off, because one day the wheels will. Headsets go out. Communication fizzles. Injuries mount. Defenses change their look. And someone - whether it's Mariota or Ridder or both - will have to get all 11 players on offense set.
They'll have to rescue themselves, and the team. This offseason they're training to do just that.
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