When Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Pederson called Christian Kirk last November, after the team’s first post-London practice, to tell him the franchise would be acquiring then-suspended Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley, there was no whiff of disappointment on the other end of the line.
After all, since the team was riding a five-game losing streak, how could Kirk not be on board with adding talent to a then-struggling offense?
Even more so, it happened to be somebody he knew from playing together in the Southeastern Conference — Kirk at Texas A&M, Ridley at Alabama — and going back to attending the same football camps as top high school recruits.
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“We’ve always had somewhat of a relationship,” Kirk said of Ridley after Monday’s OTA session. “We were able to come back in our college years and work the Nike opening together as camp counselors.
“[Pederson] said, ‘Hey, I just want you to know we’re going to be acquiring Calvin.’ He asked me if I knew anything about him, so I gave him my background [with Ridley]. Nothing but high praise for him. I was very excited we were going to be adding him.”
That level of excitement has risen substantially since the Jaguars obtained Ridley. It’s buoyed by two factors: the evolution of the Jaguars’ offense the second half of last season, plus what quarterback Trevor Lawrence might do with two potent receiving weapons on the field simultaneously.
It’s been a long time since Jaguars fans went into a season with such high anticipation for the pairing of any two receivers.
Even when the team’s greatest 1-2 tandem — Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell — first started to show promise after fellow receiver Andre Rison was released midway through the 1996 season, nobody had an inkling they’d turn into the iconic duo known as “Thunder and Lightning.”
Kirk and Ridley enter 2023 with high expectations, largely because each has already turned in 1,000-yard seasons without defenses worrying about the other’s presence. Kirk had a career-high 1,108 receiving yards and eight TDs in 2022, his first season with the Jaguars after signing a $72 million contract as a free agent.
Back in 2020 — his last full season before taking an extended break to focus on his mental health, then missing last year due to his NFL suspension for gambling — Ridley supplanted Julio Jones as the Falcons’ top receiver with 1,374 yards and nine TDs.
Ridley is so “juiced up” to be back playing football, he acknowledges the Jaguars are doing the right thing by slowing him down during OTAs. Kirk believes the ceiling for the Jaguars’ offense goes to a much higher level with Ridley, albeit rusty from nearly two years of exile, in the lineup.
What remains to be seen is how Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor will deploy numbers 0 (Ridley) and 13 (Kirk), along with dependable Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram, to create desirable matchups.
Thunder and Lightning raised bar
Not since McCardell and Smith got into a consistent groove — combining for 1,061 catches, 14,365 yards and 71 touchdowns during their six seasons together (1996-2001) — has there been a more anticipated Jaguars’ 1-2 punch at receiver.
The big question is this: can Kirk and Ridley bring out the best in each other like Thunder and Lightning did?
A generation ago, McCardell and Smith were about as perfect a fit as any receiving combo in the NFL. Others like Randy Moss and Cris Carter with the Minnesota Vikings, or Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce with the St. Louis Rams, put up bigger numbers and had a higher profile, but the chemistry between the Jaguars’ dynamic duo was evident almost immediately.
McCardell, now in his third season as receivers coach for the Vikings after a four-year stint in the same capacity with the Jaguars, outlined to the Times-Union this week in a phone interview what made him and Smith such an impactful tandem.
“We wanted to make each other better and the only way to do that is to work, work, work to the max, bring your best to practice and on Sunday,” said McCardell. “If you’re a competitor, you have to make sure you make your plays like he wants to make his plays. But we felt like we had a duty to be there for each other.
“For the Jaguars to be the best, both of us had to be at the top of our game every day. One good thing about us is we understood how teams would play us. We knew if one did something that the defense had to respect, the other would benefit. It was a great two-man game.”
Another key factor in the success of McCardell and Smith was they were galvanized by struggling to prove their worth in the NFL. Early on, both faced a hard road.
McCardell was a 12th-round draft pick by the Washington (Commanders), then got hurt as a rookie and never played a down. He signed with the Cleveland Browns and it wasn’t until his fourth season (1995) that he produced decent enough numbers, compelling Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin to bring him to Jacksonville on a three-year, $6 million contract.
Smith, though a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 1992, broke his leg as a rookie in preseason and only played on special teams. Then he nearly died the following year from a post-surgical infection related to his appendix being removed, putting his career in jeopardy.
After getting released by Dallas and the Philadelphia Eagles, he signed with the Jaguars and had modest numbers as their fifth receiver in 1995. But when Rison had a bad game in a 28-3 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers the following season, Coughlin cut him and Smith took advantage of his starting opportunity.
For the next seven years, J-Smooth eclipsed 1,000 yards, led the NFL with 116 catches in 1999, and made five Pro Bowls. During six years alongside his tag-team partner, McCardell averaged 78 catches, 1,065 yards and 5 TDs.
As a result, Thunder and Lightning were born. Their impact was such that NFL Network did a documentary on the pair in 2014.
“Jimmy and I understood how we fit together,” said McCardell. “We were fortunate to have the same agent [Gary Uberstine], which helped the relationship. We also had something in common — fighting for our lives to stay in the NFL. Nothing was going to kick us out.
“That was part of the chemistry that made us who we were. We were always fighting the odds, having that chip on our shoulder. We wanted to show people, s---, that we were the best tandem in the league.”
Kirk-Ridley could be special
Though McCardell spends most of his tape study watching defenses, especially how they might counteract Vikings star Justin Jefferson, he keeps up with NFL receivers who catch his eye.
From decades of competing and coaching the position, McCardell thinks the Kirk-Ridley pairing has a chance to be a lethal combination.
“Two young receivers that are real talented,” said McCardell. “Christian is getting the opportunity to show he can be a 1 or 2 after being a third-down guy in Arizona [with the Cardinals]. He’s showing people he can play outside, not just a slot guy.
“Calvin had an opportunity to play behind Julio [Jones] in Atlanta and he made that step up when Julio left. It’s always good to have [a receiver teammate] who’s been successful. It doesn’t matter who’s 1 or 2 between them. Both those guys have shown they can make plays at this level, which is always good for a young quarterback like Trevor.”
Kirk and Ridley insist their relationship has been symbiotic from the get-go, so the challenge for the Jaguars in OTAs and then training camp is laying the groundwork for them to maximize what Ridley can bring to the offense.
“Obviously, that’s something Press [Taylor] and myself and the offensive staff as we get closer to games, how we plan to attack defenses,” Pederson said. “Whether we’re using two tight ends or three or four receivers or whatever, it just gives you a little more flexibility.
“Having three [receivers] like we do, it’s hard to take a guy like Calvin, Christian or Zay [Jones], getting them all off the field. But at times, you’re going to have to do that to create matchups, create situations that could be advantageous for an offense and for us.”
Despite all the promise Ridley showed in his first three seasons, he’s now on a prove-it deal with the Jaguars. They agreed in the trade to take on his one-year, $11.116 million guaranteed contract given Ridley when Atlanta picked up his fifth-year option well before the NFL suspension.
The Jaguars, knowing the receiver crop in free agency and the NFL draft was average at best, gambled on a Ridley resurgence. They will gladly surrender a conditional 2024 second-round pick if the 2020 version of Ridley resurfaces.
But before either of them catches a pass this season, McCardell cautions it’s important for the Jaguars’ highly-regarded receivers to understand their place in the team order.
“People sometimes mistake receivers as divas,” said McCardell. “Really, a lot of those guys just want to help the team. Just know that the role you play is for the team, not for me, myself and I. It wasn’t about Thunder and Lightning with me and Jimmy, it was about the Jaguars. Those guys have got to realize that.”
Keeping egos in check
It’s a good thing for the Jaguars that Kirk and Ridley had a pre-existing relationship filled with mutual respect.
That made the transition into becoming teammates under unusual circumstances a lot easier. There was no awkwardness that can sometimes happen with NFL receivers who have a bit of a me mentality about their numbers.
In a Pederson culture that puts a premium on team-first players, Kirk is considered one of the most unselfish members in that fraternity. He has embraced Ridley’s arrival and the last thing he wants is even a hint of friction in the receiver group over who gets credit for any success.
“There’s no sense of competition or ego within our room,” Kirk said. “I’ve never had that and I’ll never carry that. … Whatever we can do to help win football games, and if at the end of the year, we’re holding up a Super Bowl trophy, I could care less if I’m receiver one, two or seven.
“We check our egos at the door. When you get out there on Sunday, when one is performing at a high level, it naturally raises the level of competitiveness and sense of urgency among others.”
Though Ridley pronounced himself a “1,400-yard receiver” in his first public comments as a Jaguar, he quickly dismisses any notion of him and Kirk letting individual glory get in the way of what’s best for the team.
“I’ve known Kirk since high school, we actually communicated early on when we first met each other,” said Ridley. “A dude like that, he’s never going to feel some type of way [about receiving numbers]. I’m never going to feel a certain type of way. We’re not going to feel any type of way because we’re all competing toward the same thing — trying to go to the playoffs, the Super Bowl, etcetera.
“You got to be working together. I want to make him better. He wants to make me better.”
Besides, Kirk knows with an ascending Lawrence throwing the passes, the Jaguars should be in position for all of his targets to have productive seasons. Whether that means having the first two 1,000-yard receivers in the same year since Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in 2015, it’s all irrelevant in Kirk’s big picture.
He describes the transition of bringing Ridley into the fold as “very seamless,” almost like old friends reuniting after their careers took them to different destinations.
Kirk’s main concern in 2023 has nothing to do with numbers or achieving Pro Bowl status. He just wants to find a way to extend a postseason run further than last year’s AFC divisional round loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“At the end of the day, I want to leave a legacy playing football and doing that means winning a Super Bowl, or at least being close,” said Kirk. “The individual statistics and worrying about myself, that won’t do much for my legacy. I want to be known as a great teammate and a guy that was going to do anything to win.”
Back in the day, McCardell and Smith had a similar mindset, which helps explain why the Jaguars had their most spectacular run of postseason success in the late 1990s.
There’ll probably never be another Thunder and Lightning. But if Kirk and Ridley can become an impactful tag-team, it could go a long way toward the Jaguars resurrecting those glory days.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540: Follow him on Twitter @genefrenette
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: WRs Kirk, Ridley need to be new 'Thunder and Lightning' for Jaguars