Things went from bad to worse in London for the Atlanta Falcons. After two nice wins to start the season, the first strong start for the Falcons in years, defenses keyed in on Arthur Smith’s run game and put the game into Desmond Ridder’s hands. The results were nearly as bad as you could imagine. Ridder, who was praised for being so safe with the ball before Week 3, threw picks on back-to-back offensive snaps. He held onto the ball too long. His pocket awareness hasn’t been there. He had bad throws. He’s struggling to read defenses. Teammates looked tuned out on the sidelines, with the team’s WR2 Mack Hollins appearing to get into a confrontation with the passer.
Even if you are optimistic about Ridder, this is a low. Once two defenses stuffed the box, Ridder has gone 40/69 for 392 yards, 1 TD, and 2 interceptions while taking 11 sacks. That’s under 58% completion percentage, 196 yards, 0.5 touchdown and 1 interception average the last two weeks.
The Falcons are riding with Ridder
It is way too early to be talking about benching nearly any quarterback. The quarterback position is so exceptionally difficult to play that a quick hook for young players generally prevents them from reaching their ceiling. Teams need to have slightly more patience than the San Francisco 49ers, as the simple fact is you won’t find a starter if you give a guy only 8 or so games. Even Marcus Mariota got 13 games in his age-29 season after previously flaming out in Arthur Smith’s own offense. And let me tell you, things were even uglier than this at times.
Ridder also needs an opportunity to bounce back. Part of being a quarterback is learning how to improve and come back stronger than before. We may romanticize Matt Ryan’s rookie year, but despite riding Michael Turner with a conservative, run-first offense, Ryan had four multi-interception games his rookie year. Then things looked worse in his sophomore year, including a stretch where had 11 picks in only six games. Bad games were there. Good games were there. Through it all we saw a quarterback shaking off the bad games and heading in the right direction. Ridder is not going to be Ryan, but the point remains.
Moving on from Ridder now would be a desperation move from the Falcons. Ridder isn’t a long-in-the-tooth veteran with a young guy waiting in the wings. The team’s future isn’t sitting on the bench (sorry to the Logan Woodside truthers). The Falcons benching Ridder means Atlanta hits reset on 2023 and makes 2024 yet another crucial year where they have to start over at quarterback. At 2-2 with 13 games left, that’s not a move any non-Jim Irsay team would make.
The Falcons are to blame for lack of options
Sometimes things happen that are out of your control, like the end of Mike Vick’s career in Atlanta. Sometimes things happen that are entirely your doing, like the end of Matt Ryan’s career in Atlanta. I want to be very clear and say that the current situation is entirely and fully in that second bucket.
The smart teams will typically put in place a transition plan from one franchise quarterback to the next. The young guy can learn under the veteran’s tutelage for one or two seasons. That’s not some crazy suggestion I’m throwing out here to make a point — Arthur Blank said exactly that under two years ago.
Mere weeks later, the Falcons did the complete opposite and tried throwing a slew of draft picks and hundreds of millions at Deshaun Watson. After getting publicly pulled into the Watson fiasco, Watson burned the Falcons in the search for more guaranteed money (and instead burned the Cleveland Browns with disastrous play). The Falcons burned its relationship with Matt Ryan and was suddenly without any quarterback. No veteran. No young player. Nothing at the most important position in football.
The Falcons in 2021 passed on quarterbacks like Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the draft. In 2022, the team waited until round 3 to take Ridder. Ridder was then paired with free agent Marcus Mariota, a pretty painful 13-game stretch where we learned Mariota was not undergoing a late-career resurgence despite a couple of fun games.
We saw why Mariota was a free agent in late March. The Falcons did have a young player waiting in the wings. However, instead of seeing what he’s got, Smith kept Mariota in game after game. Ridder was probably not going to win a lot of games. But the staff could have seen what Ridder had under an extensive evaluation. That didn’t happen. Ridder had four games.
Next offseason, the Falcons again eschewed top draft candidates and instead signed “plus” backup Taylor Heinicke. While I’m a fan of the playmaking quarterback, Heinicke, like Mariota, is an incomplete (but more complete than Mariota) quarterback entering his age-29 season with only so much upside. He also turns the ball over a lot, with 21 interceptions and 14 fumbles in 24 starts with Washington over the past two seasons. The Falcons stayed out of the tepid competition for Trey Lance and, to the best of our knowledge, didn’t make a strong push for other potential trade candidates.
While Ridder’s four games may not have looked like a lot to fans, it was a lot for the team. Arthur Smith named Ridder the starter before offseason programs even began. There was no competition. Arthur Blank threw support behind Ridder before Heinicke was even signed, providing the following commentary on Ridder’s limited 2022 performances: “He didn’t throw the ball to the other team, which is a huge factor in winning games.”
There may not have been a competition, but the team was in year three of adding offensive weapons. Kyle Pitts should be entering a big jump in year three, Drake London should be ready to build off an impressive rookie season, and top pick Bijan Robinson should be taking the pressure off of Ridder. The expectations are obviously higher, as Blank said this offseason, with this being year three of a three-year plan. The Falcons were expecting to win this year.
Smith was so confident in his offense that most starters sat through nearly the entire preseason. No competition. Few snaps. Perhaps this is why it feels like we’re watching a preseason offense?
There’s no where to go but up
Ridder has looked bad, but there has definitely been some things to be optimistic about. Ridder took a few deeper passes down the field and was able to move the ball once he has settled in, albeit too often when the game is already in question. Those items and his third down performances are something to build on while Smith can, hopefully, better tailor the passing scheme to Ridder’s comfort and strengths. At the very least, Smith needs to find a way to better use his top offensive weapons. The expectation can’t be Ridder needs to be play at a Pro Bowl level because Smith can’t get Kyle Pitts involved for the second year in a row; the expectation does need to be that Ridder will play at a functional enough level to keep this offense working.
Even if Smith has seen enough of Ridder, he doesn’t have any compelling choices. Imagine giving veteran Mariota 13 games only to bench a developmental player after a handful of games to hand the reigns to another so-so veteran. Smith’s only reason to bench Ridder now is because his seat is heating up and he needs to finally produce wins. It is worst case scenario that this team should have no great Plan B beyond a gamble on a young quarterback that may not work out, but the Falcons are entirely to blame for their current predicament.