You’d be better off asking a Magic 8 ball about the Falcons’ future at quarterback instead of head coach Arthur Smith.
It’s very understandable that Smith is being cagey when asked about quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder. One of them has rolled through some seriously shaky efforts after a solid first half of the year, and the other is an unknown quantity at the game’s most popular position who tantalized in preseason reps and hasn’t been seen since.
Smith isn’t going to show his hand. He’s got the poker face for the ages, and he’s learned well from the Bill Belichick/Mike Vrabel school of deflecting questions. The future at quarterback for the Falcons may be mysterious to everyone outside of the building, but common sense is beginning to lurk in ways that the team likely can’t ignore.
The argument for starting Ridder is gaining more and more steam the more the Falcons lose and Mariota struggles. There is no way around that.
The trouble with where the Falcons are has everything to do with the draft. The more the losses pile up, the more that the team is veering toward a higher draft pick instead of a trophy for standing atop the flimsy NFC South. Even if the team does win the division at, say, 7-10, does that really mean much? Stumbling onto a division title in this crowd doesn’t mean you’re ready for Super Bowl contention. It just means you got lucky. Congrats, you had the least-bad team.
The higher up the Falcons get in the draft, the more accessible one of the 2023 quarterbacks will be. The team passing on Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields is starting to look like a major mistake, with Fields giving Chicago exactly what Smith’s offense craves. He’s a happy-to-run-and-talented-enough-to-do-so quarterback with a strong arm who can provide plenty in the passing game.
As sky-high as tight end Kyle Pitts’ potential is, it’s hard not to imagine what Fields would be doing in this offense this year after having a season to sit and learn behind Matt Ryan. Hindsight is 20/20, but passing on Fields continues to look like a problem.
Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe the team, which has been prioritizing 2023 all along, has navigated this well and knows what their quarterback situation is going to be like going forward. If they believe they have the kind of quarterback who can lead this team like Fields is beginning to lead the Bears, why not try him out now?
Mariota has been a great leader for the Falcons, and has at times has shown his best self on the field as well. However, Thursday night’s game in Carolina showed many of his worst habits and mistakes that have haunted him much of his career, and at this point, you just have to assume you get both when you start him at quarterback. There’s no shame in that for Mariota; it just may be who he is at this point in his up-and-down career. After putting forth 10 starts at the helm of this offense, he shouldn’t struggle for chances to be a spot starter or highly-regarded backup wherever he goes from here.
The reality is that Mariota signed with the Falcons to be a bridge quarterback after the Matt Ryan trade, and he’s filled that role. The team drafting Ridder in the third round of the draft (hopefully) signified that they had faith he could develop into a possible starter down the road. As the old saying goes, there is no time like the present.
The Falcons could be 0-4 post-49ers win if that bizarre first Panthers game goes how it probably should’ve. Mariota isn’t close to the cause of that swoon, but he also hasn’t proven to be a solution for it, and the offensive explosion and defensive competence has faded with injuries mounting and teams defending the run with more focus.
Smith is a smart cookie, but his ability to mask this offense’s genuine deficiencies with Mariota under center can only go so far. As Kyle Shanahan learned in San Francisco, just having a quarterback that’s good enough to execute the full breadth of your scheme can work wonders. and even he’s looked to replace that quarterback with a potential step up.
Atlanta’s defensive problems will be solved next year through free agency, the draft and in the offseason program, assuming all goes well. It will add much more talent, and have more time to develop its younger players. There’s not a lot they can do right now to right that side of the ship. On offense, though, there is a change they can make. It’s a change that they won’t want to wait too much longer on if they can afford it. They’ve got to consider starting Ridder.
Three things could hold that back: one would be a fear of messing with his development behind Atlanta’s offensive line. If the team likes where he is and doesn’t want to shake his confidence right now, they’ll run with Mariota, who despite all his recent frustrations has still shown a remarkable ability to escape the pressure Ridder would also be dealing with behind an offensive line that’s sharply regressing.
Two would be a desire to remain competitive. Ridder will take his lumps getting adjusted, and the team still may want that playoff spot just to have it. You could argue that Ridder makes that easier with his passing ability, but there are no guarantees he’s a step up on Mariota.
Three would be Ridder himself not giving the team a reason to start him. Maybe he’s behind on where they want him to be, or maybe they, well, just drafted him to be a long-term backup. It’s really impossible for us to know how the team really feels about Ridder until he plays in actual games, as they said a lot of glowing things right after drafting him and over the summer, but not much since. If that doesn’t happen this year, it hypothetically signal that he’s not the guy. That’s not the ideal scenario for anyone involved—it puts this team in the position of potentially needing to surrender significant assets to trade up in the draft for a quarterback or trade for a veteran—but it is possible.
After swinging-and-missing for Deshaun Watson (*shivers*), Falcons owner Arthur Blank is possibly getting antsy to see his team find out what its future is at quarterback. The business reasoning for starting Ridder and getting fans to pour in to see the new quarterback is palpable, and the football reasoning is solid. You don’t want to rush Ridder’s development, but would a few games in 2022 really hurt?
Ridder would enter the starting lineup with a rising head coach that mostly calls effective plays, plenty of weapons to throw to, a run game to balance on and...well, an offensive line. The team wouldn’t be throwing him to the wolves, though certainly there will be a few times where he’s chased around. The Falcons are the wolves, or at least, they ought to be. Sooner or later, they’ll have to have the confidence to see what he’s got, especially if a 2023 quarterback also has caught their eye.
It’s hard to know what to think about all of this, whether you’re a Ridder stan or a Mariota fan, but Thursday night’s game gives you a clear picture of where the Falcons are. They’re going to need quite a bit of work to be a legitimate contender, and one of the changes that is a virtual certainty is that the team is going to need a new quarterback sooner or later.
It may or may not prove to be Ridder, but I doubt the team is going to wait too much longer before they use game action to try to figure that out. With seen games to go, it’s getting close to the time you want to start figuring out if the guy you just drafted is good enough to keep your team from starting over again in 2023.