Crimson Ties

Falcons wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones didn’t play together at Alabama, but Ridley found a ‘big brother’ for life in the NFL

Calvin Ridley drove his 2018 Dodge Challenger to a convenience store in the chic Buckhead area of Atlanta one evening in January.

Let’s just say the car left before he did.

Ridley, who had just finished his rookie NFL season with the Atlanta Falcons, left his Challenger running while he ran inside. Someone, appreciating a crime of opportunity, decided to steal it, driving off into the cold winter’s night.

Who said life as an NFL player is all glamour and easy living?

“No such thing as a safe part of town, so be careful,” Ridley tweeted after the incident.

Rookie mistake. Could have used his mentor. Everyone can use one, especially pro athletes. And how perfect for Ridley that a fellow product of the University of Alabama is by his side to work through these things.

“Big brother,” is what Ridley has called Julio Jones.

Julio and Ridley didn’t play together at Alabama. Yes, both guys wore crimson for three years, got yelled at by Nick Saban for the same duration, and combined to win three national championships in Tuscaloosa, where they go down as two of the best wide receivers in Crimson Tide football history.

Calvin Ridley | Photo courtesy Atlanta Falcons

But they were products of slightly different eras. Jones, a native of Foley, Alabama, left T-town after 2010, where he won one national title and finished with 2,653 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He’d already become one of the NFL’s top players by the time Ridley, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida native, left after 2017 with two national titles, 2,781 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns.

So, when the Falcons made Ridley their first-round draft choice last year, Ridley joined the quietly confident Jones in the team’s complex in Flowery Branch, Georgia, as starstruck as the next guy.

“When we’re on that field, he’s coaching everyone,” Ridley told NFL.com, “and it’s just amazing to see Julio Jones out there working as hard as we are.”

Jones has been to six Pro Bowls. He led the NFL last fall with 1,677 receiving yards on 113 catches. And, truth be told, he should be wearing a Super Bowl ring by now, a nightmarish reminder to Falcons fans of their blown 28-3 lead over the Patriots in the 2017 Big Game. You can base that, for the most part, on then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s decision to pass instead of run with a large lead late in the game, when even kneeling with the ball likely would have guaranteed the franchise’s first-ever title.

But in a large way, that’s something Jones, Ridley, and talented offensive teammates like receiver Mohamed Sanu, running back Devonta Freeman and quarterback Matt Ryan are fighting to correct. The Falcons returned to the playoffs in January 2018, where they beat the Los Angeles Rams in the wild card round. But last fall, injuries depleted the roster—especially on defense— and Atlanta missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

Despite the losses, however, last season was one of the best in Jones’ eight-year career. His 138-yard effort against Tampa Bay in the season finale was his 10th 100-plus receiving yard game of the season, breaking his own franchise mark of nine in 2015.

That’s where Jones’ work ethic, which Ridley keeps a close eye on, comes into play. “I probably catch like 200-300 balls a day, and that’s just in-between (practice) reps,” Ridley told NFL.com.  And guess who he learned that from?

“The way (Jones) runs his routes—he’s so detailed—and he knows coverages and the way he lines up…It’s just amazing to be around Julio Jones.”

Their styles are different. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones is stronger, able to fight for mid-range passes and break more tackles to go with his straight-line speed. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Ridley is as crisp a route-runner as has come into the NFL in some time, stopping and starting with smooth moves that leave coaches shaking their heads. Both are incredibly fast. Jones ran a 4.39 at the 2011 NFL combine, while Ridley ran a 4.43 in 2018.

Better times are ahead, they feel. And when Falcons minicamp begins this summer, Jones and Ridley will welcome yet another former Crimson Tider to the mix. The Falcons signed offensive lineman James Carpenter, a fellow 2010 draft pick like Jones, to a free-agent contract earlier this month. Carpenter, along with fellow free-agent signee Jamon Brown, are expected to be the Falcons’ starting guards and shore up an offensive line that allowed Ryan to be battered for much of last fall.

The offense took a step back last season but still finished 10th in the league in scoring. And as it got healthier down the stretch, the team won its final three games, giving hope that 2019 will be closer to what 2016 and 2017 were.

Julio Jones making a catch against the Tampa Bay Bucs | Photo courtesy Atlanta Falcons


Its offensive skill players remained a strength. Not only did Jones shine, but Ridley set a rookie franchise record with 10 touchdown receptions, the final one coming in the same Bucs game in which Jones set his own Falcons record. Ridley passed former Falcons tight end Junior Miller for that honor and finished the season with 64 catches for 821 yards.

Team officials hope for the continued upward trend. For example, although the Jones-Ridley relationship has been a feel-good story, there had been concern in Falcons camp last summer that Jones might not be there. He’d threatened to hold out due to his financial concerns. He had skipped minicamp and wanted his contract restructured, which the Falcons did, with promises to restructure it further this offseason. So far that hasn’t happened, however general manager Thomas Dimitroff has said he expects it to get done. Atlanta fans hope more drama is averted, and certainly the Falcons offense needs Jones in the fold.

“He and I and the organization are in a really good place right now,” Dimitroff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this season. “We thought he had a standout season. He continues to lead both on and off. His leadership is exemplary.”

Especially for one young Mr. Ridley. H&A



 

Steve Kirk

Steve Kirk

A sports writer and editor for 25-plus years, Steve’s career includes stints at The Birmingham News, Florida Times-Union, The (Columbia, S.C.) State and Birmingham Post-Herald. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, he lives in the Atlanta area.
Steve Kirk

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