Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder will undoubtedly get better than his rocky debut at New Orleans. It’s genuinely unfair to expect a rookie to come in and play like a seasoned professional.
The team seems to love his intangibles, but Sunday’s tape might give them pause when it comes to handing him the keys to the kingdom in what is going to be the most important offseason this new regime has faced. It was likely always heading this way, but the Falcons look like a team that desperately needs to figure out a long-term plan a quarterback.
It’s not to suggest Ridder won’t eventually figure it out. For all we know, there is a path where Ridder is balling out a year from now and the Falcons are bonafide playoff contenders. The young quarterback showed on Sunday why he was taken in third round; he’s a work-in-progress and has clear hurdles to overcome. It was always Pollyanna-ish of us to imagine a world where Ridder emerged as the team’s savior right out of the gate, if a bit impossible not to crave the best-case scenario.
As much as Arthur Smith has shown himself to be a capable NFL head coach, he’s probably going to be coaching for his future next season. Three straight losing records would be hard for any coach to overcome, but especially one in Smith’s circumstances. With the influx of cap space about to set in, the Falcons can finally add meaningful talent to a starved roster.
However, so much comes down to who is playing quarterback. Even the most talented NFL teams can’t live up to its fullest potential if the quarterback position is a mess. You don’t need Patrick Mahomes to win games, but you need much more than what the Falcons have consistently gotten this season.
If Ridder shows legitimate improvement in the final weeks of the season and the team feels like he’s ready to meaningfully compete for the job, expect a veteran signing regardless. Guys like Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold, Tyler Huntley, Gardner Minshew, Mike White and Baker Mayfield would qualify for this assignment. This would give Ridder a meaningful window to prove his worth while giving the team a fallback option if he were to falter.
However, that won’t get butts in seats. If Ridder doesn’t light it up in his next three starts, the lingering questions about how good he can be will hang over the spring and summer in Atlanta. From a purely business perspective, the Falcons would be on thin ice with a fan base that really isn’t all that keen on waiting any longer for success after five straight losing seasons, especially because they’ll once again be asked to take major improvement on faith.
You can’t (well, shouldn’t) make football decisions based on empty stadiums. However, the Falcons will have to continue to live with the rise of quarterback Justin Fields. More and more, he looks like the one that got away. Tight end Kyle Pitts didn’t have the breakout season many hoped with Marcus Mariota behind center, while Fields certainly did. We knew back in 2021 that the decision to pass on Fields could come back to haunt this regime. While Pitts can still be a superstar, he’s got to have the quarterback play to make his selection and Drake London’s selection make sense, because someone needs to get both budding stars the ball.
That might mean, as much as folks might not want to think about it, that the Falcons will be very much in on one of the quarterbacks in this upcoming class. The jury is still out on exactly who is the top prospect, though Alabama’s Bryce Young has the clear lead. Kentucky’s Will Levis, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker stand as the top options behind Young at present.
Smith is going to tie his coaching future in Atlanta to whomever is starting at quarterback in the fall. His scheme hasn’t been able to fully cover up the deficiencies of his roster, despite the team’s gashing run game. For the Falcons to take the next step, it’ll be vital that they have a quarterback who can efficiently run his system and elevate it when need be. Basically, they’d need someone comparable to Ryan Tannehill, and ideally even an upgrade.
Can Ridder be that? Sure, but will the team have the patience to wait for that to happen? If Smith’s Falcons are around 5-9 next Christmas, he’s going to be on the hot seat. Arthur Blank has proven to be a patient owner, but three straight losing seasons won’t cut it for the ghost of Vince Lombardi.
The book is not written on Ridder, far from it. However, just with the way things are working out in Atlanta, he may not have that many pages to write in. The Falcons have a quarterback problem with no clear solutions, and a very short window to figure out how much faith they’re willing and able to put into the rookie heading into such a pivotal 2023. Maybe Ridder figures it out as the year goes on and gives the team just enough to feel confident. That’s the ideal scenario.
However, don’t be shocked if the Falcons shimmy up the draft order to snag one of this draft’s top prospects. It might cost some draft capital, but it also might be what this regime has to do to give themselves a clear-cut future at quarterback.
Ridder will get three more games to make his case. If he still looks like he did on Sunday by season’s end—if the progress isn’t there and the upside isn’t materializing—we really might see the Falcons draft a quarterback in the first round for the first time since 2008. It’s up to Ridder and the Falcons to make that specter disappear.