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When should the Falcons turn to Desmond Ridder?

After losing three of their last four and watching the passing game come to a screeching halt over the last two games, has the time come for the Falcons to turn to rookie QB Desmond Ridder? Our staff weighs in.

Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons have had an interesting start to the 2022 NFL season. Over the first ten games, the team is 4-6—which, when considering most markets predicted the team win between 4-5 games on the season, really isn’t bad. However, that better-than-expected record combined with the overall weakness of the NFC South has maybe given fans (and the team) a little more confidence than is actually warranted.

After spending the first seven games in the top-10 in scoring offense, the Falcons have fallen all the way to 12th on the back of two sub-20 point games. There’s plenty of blame to go around—I’m looking at you, offensive line—but a key culprit in the offense’s struggles has been veteran quarterback Marcus Mariota. Signed to a two-year contract after the Matt Ryan trade, Mariota was expected to be the “bridge starter” at the position in 2022. The hope was that he could at least make the offense watchable and functional over the course of the season, but expectations were fairly low otherwise.

After a strong training camp and preseason, Mariota actually played a pretty strong first half of the season. Those good games were always mixed with poor ones, however, and Mariota has now had two bad performances in a row. The passing game, which was always low-volume, has now deteriorated to the point where it is no longer functional for large stretches of the game.

That has resulted in calls for rookie third-round pick Desmond Ridder to start, both from fans and media. To be clear, there have been calls for Ridder for at least the last month, but things changed after Thursday night’s abysmal outing against the Panthers.

Arthur Smith addressed the possible “QB situation” on Monday by saying...well, “there’s no situation”.

To be fair, I wouldn’t expect to hear about a quarterback change until the change is being announced. Arthur Smith isn’t going to call out his veteran starter in front of the media, and he’s not going to create an additional divide in the locker room by teasing a competition. Smith’s comments strongly suggest a change is not coming for Week 11 against the Chicago Bears, but anything could happen going forward.

With the situation approaching a possible turning point, now seems like the time to gauge the thoughts of the staff here at The Falcoholic. I’ve asked everyone for their opinions on the Desmond Ridder debate, and you can read them all below. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments, as well!

As soon as possible

Before I get into Desmond Ridder, let me first say that I think Marcus Mariota has played about as well as I expected going into the season. I praised Mariota’s play in training camp and during the preseason, and I think he’s been an overall effective shepherd of the offense over the first half of the season. Mariota’s athleticism and ability to make positive plays out of absolute chaos are both special traits. Arthur Smith also deserves credit for building an offense around Mariota that, until recently, was among the highest-scoring units in the NFL and kept Atlanta in games each and every week.

The issue is the same one that has plagued Mariota throughout his NFL career: he’s a limited passer. It’s not necessarily an arm talent issue, it’s a processing and trigger issue. Mariota does not read the field effectively, and he’s slow to trigger on throws. Some might even describe him as “hesitant”. I actually think Mariota has good arm strength and has shown the ability to make some really special throws on the move. From the pocket, however, he’s simply below-average and inconsistent.

Until the last month or so, this wasn’t actually an issue for Atlanta. The Falcons were able to scheme around Mariota’s limitations by dialing up a ton of easy play-action throws and relying on heavy dose of the run game. But NFL defenses are smart and adapt quickly, and we’ve now seen teams learn how to stop the Falcons: stuff up the box on early downs, get Atlanta into third-and-long, and force Mariota to throw. It’s a recipe for offensive disaster, especially when combined with the poor pass protection.

Add all that to the sad reality that Mariota is starting to “force it”, in his own words, and the end has come for this iteration of the offense. Unless a miraculous turnaround occurs—and it needs to happen this week—the Falcons will be 4-7 with back-to-back losses against two of the worst teams in the NFL. The playoffs will be no more than a mathematical possibility at that point.

I don’t know what we can expect from Desmond Ridder. It’s possible he’s a disaster of an even higher order than Mariota. But with the postseason no more than a dream, in my opinion, the time has come for the evaluation phase of the season. The biggest question of all is at quarterback, and the only potential long-term answer on the roster is Ridder. Is he a potential bridge starter? Long-term starter? Long-term backup? Nothing at all? We need to find out, and the best way to do that is by getting him on the field.

I would have been happy to start Ridder this week, but I understand that the coaching staff believes this team is still “in the hunt”. If Atlanta falls to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, we can officially put any playoff hopes to bed and see what we have in the rookie. -Kevin Knight

Now or after the Commanders game

You couldn’t anticipate the highs, which include Marcus Mariota winning NFC Offensive Player of the Week and keying a big win over the 49ers, and you wouldn’t have foreseen the lows, which include a woeful connection with Kyle Pitts and some truly head-scratching throws in recent weeks. In the broadest strokes, however, Mariota has been exactly what I thought he’d be for the Falcons: A capable enough short-term starter for a team that needed veteran leadership and a player who was comfortable in and capable of running Arthur Smith’s offense.

While many fans have justifiably rallied around Mariota during his time as a starter, some have made the mistake of talking themselves in the veteran as a long-term starter for the Falcons, which just wasn’t a realistic expectation. The Falcons didn’t draft Desmond Ridder to be insurance in case Mariota couldn’t be the franchise signal caller; they drafted Desmond Ridder to potentially be the franchise signal caller, with Mariota making the team interesting and competitive in the interim and potentially serving as Ridder insurance if the rookie flops.

One way or the other, Atlanta really should get a multi-start look at Ridder before they head into a 2023 offseason where they may want to invest significant dollars and/or draft capital into the league’s most vital position. It’s not really about whether Ridder can be or is better than Mariota right now—I’m keeping my expectations muted—but whether he can show them enough to let them focus their cap space and picks elsewhere this coming spring.

Given Mariota’s struggles the past two games and the opportunity to roll out Ridder against a lousy Bears run defense and shaky pass rush, the moment seems ripe for a change. If the Falcons just aren’t ready to do that yet for any number of reasons, they’ll have opportunities to do so against the Steelers (who are terrible) or after the bye against the Saints (who are a bit better, but would be facing the quarterback with the advantage of an extra week of Falcons preparation). Unless this team is truly down on the rookie as a long-term option, the need to give him a fair shake as the starter and see if they can hand him the keys in a pivotal 2023 season is evident. — Dave Choate

The Falcons should have already made the switch.

Marcus Mariota was a good choice for a stopgap starter after the team traded Matt Ryan to the Colts. You want a veteran in that QBs room with the rookie the team hopes can be the future at that position. You need someone whose ego won’t get in the way of being a mentor and helping Ridder adjust to the NFL. Mariota, by all accounts, is that guy.

But Mariota is also the guy we see on the field every single Sunday. He has his moments, but he’s been this player for his entire career. Watching him try to read a defense is physically painful, and his accuracy is often quite bad. This is the player he has been over the course of his eight-year NFL career. There are no surprises here.

The best time to make the switch, in my opinion, would have been two weeks ago. But since the team has chosen to not give Ridder a shot behind center yet this season, the second-best time is next week against the Bears. Playing on Thursday Night Football in Week 10 gives the team a mini-bye, and the extra time off would theoretically give the team more time to prepare Ridder to step into the starting role.

Will they do it? We’ll find out next week. But it’s time. — Jeanna Kelley

There’s no time like the present

My prediction before the season was that we would see Desmond Ridder after the Carolina Panthers Thursday Night Football game, unless Marcus Mariota was leading Atlanta into playoff contention with Pro Bowl level play. While the Falcons are technically in playoff contention, they have been getting held back by Mariota’s play more than anything and they are in a fool’s gold situation of “contention” as a result of being in the weakest division in football.

Without the benefit of having a reasonable bye week (a Week 14 bye is ridiculous for numerous reasons, but that’s for a different conversation), they now have the chance to utilize this mini bye week to get Ridder prepared and to throw him out there in a part of a schedule which isn’t exactly a gauntlet.

The Falcons have squeezed out as much success as they could with Mariota; now defenses have adjusted and the ceiling has been completely capped. Chasing delusions of grandeur and keeping Mariota inserted as the “veteran presence” because of a 16% shot at the playoffs (this according to 538) would be doing a disservice to Ridder, and to the franchise itself.

Now is the time to see what we’ve got with Desmond Ridder in an actual regular season setting. At the very least, if he struggles and the team determines that he is not the franchise’s answer to life after Matt Ryan then that itself is an important step. We won’t learn anything by continuing to trot Marcus Mariota out there. We already know that he isn’t much more than a backup. — Adnan Ikic

The Falcons should follow the process — whatever that is

I’m not sure what the plan was, or even currently is. The team hasn’t really been clear as it comes to its most important position. This isn’t to take shots at the team’s seemingly erratic and often-changing approach to quarterback. However, I have to believe there is some plan. The alternative to that belief means Atlanta may be looking at yet another rebuild in a year or two — too terrifying a thought to consider.

Was Desmond Ridder ever expected to be the starter or just a backup quarterback with long-term potential? Has Ridder shown starter-worthy play in practice? Does Arthur Smith want to protect Ridder from a bad offensive line? Was 2022 always going to be a rebuilding year?

These are questions we don’t have answers to. After all, the coaching staff hasn’t been talking up Ridder. Smith hasn’t said Ridder is getting close. There wasn’t even a training camp battle. The staff can only be so high on the passer after waiting until the 74th pick to grab him.

Of course, maybe the plan was to give Mariota a long leash and see if he can run the offense. But there should be a plan that relates to how the brain trust sees this team developing in the future. Mariota has undoubtedly been bad. Real bad. But that doesn’t mean Atlanta should abandon its plan and force in a rookie passer. Atlanta is rebuilding for the future, not competing for a championship. The lens needs to be focused on the next few years, not the last few games. — Matt Chambers

It’s Time.

I believe that Arthur Smith has done a truly commendable job building an effective offense in Atlanta that is unconventional and creates a sum that is better than its individual parts. Therefore, I’m confident he can do something similar around Desmond Ridder.

These last few weeks we’ve seen the book on defending Atlanta’s offense materialize. Penetration with the defensive line - helped in part by injuries at left guard - can really stop this run game before it really gets going. When Mariota has increasingly had to rely on his arm, the outcome has been far worse. After a short week leading into Carolina, the coaching staff has now had the requisite time to build a plan for Ridder.

There was always an element of surprise in what Atlanta did in the early stages of this season with Mariota. They can recapture some of that by turning to Ridder for this final stretch because there is no NFL book on the third-round rookie just yet. Based on what we saw in the preseason, he should provide a bit more to the passing game while also presenting the athleticism needed for this offense. If the Falcons do want to wring every little bit out of this season, I think that the move to Ridder makes complete sense. It would rekindle that spark of imagination in this offense while folding in some new abilities at the quarterback position.

And, yes, it would also finally allow us to see what the Falcons are working with for the future. — Will McFadden