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After Taylor Heinicke’s strong Sunday, the Falcons quarterback controversy has arrived

Whether Arthur Smith likes it or not, and he almost certainly does not, Atlanta now has one on their hands.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Falcons have been admirably (or foolishly, if that’s your view) committed to Desmond Ridder. They named him the starter in the spring, refused to bring in direct competition for him this summer, and have stood behind him throughout the ups and downs of his 2023 starts. That commitment seemed rock solid, as the team didn’t bench him through a pair of three turnover games or after the back-to-back interceptions against the Jaguars in London, and it seemed fair to urge fans to settle in and see how he did for the entire 2023 season. And then Sunday happened.

Ridder did not come out for the second half after a pretty dismal first half that featured a costly fumble. We learned from reporters that he was being checked for a concussion, and Arthur Smith said after the game that Ridder was not benched for performance issues. Ridder was, however, cleared by doctors and still did not return to the game, with backup Taylor Heinicke engineering multiple second half scoring drives and pulling the Falcons within striking distance of a win. Smith talked about the team’s confidence in Ridder after the game and Heinicke made it clear he still views himself as the backup, all of which suggests that the Falcons are primed to go back to Ridder in Week 9 against a Vikings team that will be without an injured Kirk Cousins.

All of that is important and worth monitoring, but the expectation that Ridder will be back out there seems like a fair one. The problem for Atlanta, of course, is that they just summoned a full-blown quarterback controversy, the kind they just spent a significant chunk of last year enduring.

Why? There were plenty of fans and analysts alike calling for Heinicke to start before this week, but they were doing so without Heinicke actually getting in the game, or any indication that he would. I asked in frustration how the Falcons could possibly trot Ridder back out there after the back-to-back picks in that Jacksonville game; after they did, I became more or less convinced we were headed for a full season with him at the helm. By inserting Heinicke in the lineup and keeping him there after Ridder was cleared, the Falcons showed us what this offense looked like with the veteran at the helm, and those 20 points in the second half after the team failed to even score 20 points in a game in four of the past five weeks were tough to ignore.

That’s not something you can simply pack neatly back away, even if it seems to be the teams’s inclination. Fans have now seen Heinicke pilot the offense capably and put points on the board without turning the ball over; his track record suggests he can do the former but the latter is a stretch, but that hardly matters when the alternative has been turning the ball over constantly. Fans and analysts alike are going to look at the Falcons askance for not re-inserting Ridder into the lineup if he was cleared for concussion symptoms, even if the team had conversations with the medical staff that made them convinced that putting him back out there would be foolhardy. Now that Heinicke has come in for Ridder once, it’s going to be tough to wave away the possibility of him doing so again if the young quarterback scuffles.

Doing so would essentially declare Ridder’s candidacy for Falcons long-term franchise quarterback over, if it’s not officially over right now. That leaves the Falcons, who did everything in their power to swat away questions about Ridder’s upside and status as the starter for the past several months, in a tough spot. Heinicke is a perfectly fine option for the rest of the season, but he is not a long-term starting quarterback for this franchise, and if he does well the rest of the way Atlanta’s chances of getting another high-end quarterback without surrendering massive money, draft compensation, or both is likely nil.

They’ll be on the quarterback treadmill without easy access to the kind of costly blockbuster they narrowly dodged (Deshaun Watson) and refused to pursue (Lamar Jackson) available. It seems clear the Falcons would prefer to avoid even chasing one of those situations given their stated lack of interest in Jackson, no matter how unlikely the Ravens actually letting him walk might be, and it would be a reversal to see them go hard after, say, Kyler Murray or Justin Fields this offseason. Still, limbo is not a place anyone wants to be, and the Falcons have carried themselves throughout this calendar year as though they thought Ridder could get them off of it.

With the controversy entrenched—it makes little different to Arthur Smith, who has been fielding these questions regardless and will now just get more of them at a louder volume—there are three obvious possible outcomes now:

  • The team keeps starting Ridder with an eye on riding out the season. There was a consensus here and significant support in the national conversation for the idea that Ridder has grown as a passer and decision-maker, with the turnovers being something he could fix over the long haul. The hope for the Falcons is that rolling with Ridder again after this would result in a continuation of that growth, a reduction in turnovers, and vindication for the idea that he is the quarterback to carry this team forward for the long haul. They’ll ride out more inevitable hiccups and perhaps a lousy performance or two if their belief is that bedrock and the decision to park him was truly motivated primarily or solely by medical concerns. Just last week they were talking like there was no chance they would bench him; perhaps they still won’t for the long haul.

This is the road Arthur Smith and Taylor Heinicke seemed to suggest the Falcons would take on Sunday, with the growth to be determined but the conviction that it will be realized still standing. Heinicke saying it’s Ridder’s team is not a hollow thing to say, even if it ends up ringing hollow in a few weeks. If Ridder does not grow and excel, of course...

  • The team keeps starting Ridder, but he’s on a short leash. Smith can turn back to Ridder and give him another game or two to prove he can get the job done. If he doesn’t, or if he straight up implodes at some point in the next few games, Heinicke can come back in. That will be viewed as too late if Ridder ends up being the reason this team loses more games, same as it was for Ridder’s insertion into the lineup last year in favor of a struggling Marcus Mariota, but it at least gives the young quarterback the chance to prove he deserves to stay in the role. Once Heinicke’s in the lineup and Ridder is officially benched, if it comes to that, the veteran is unlikely to leave it unless he gets injured or completely implodes himself.
  • The team starts Heinicke in Week 9. If they had not so thoroughly tethered themselves to Ridder, this is the decision I think they make next week. Heinicke played well after going in for Ridder, he’s here to be a capable fill-in starter when the Falcons need him to be, and Ridder hasn’t shown you enough to this point to think he will be the team’s long-term starter. If the team’s belief in Ridder was not what it is, if the track record of the two quarterbacks and Sunday’s performance were the determining factor, this move would be inevitable.

As the game wound down, it felt likely this would be the move we’d see. To Joe Patrick’s credit, the 92.9 The Game Falcons reporter called the likelier path and anticipated Arthur Smith’s comments.

It’s still possible that Smith takes a hard look at both players this week, decides Heinicke is the better option, and just rolls with him with this team’s frustrating roller coast weeks and big turnover spates mounting. I have a feeling we’ll be waiting longer than that, but until Smith conclusively says Ridder is starting, it’s fair to feel that’s an option on the table.

Regardless of what road they choose, the Falcons are in a spot where their hand-picked starter is struggling to get through games without very costly plays, and that same player just spent the second half of a game on the bench while his backup did very well. There were other roads available to this team this year than simply handing the reins to Ridder, but that is the road they chose, and I don’t really buy the idea that this team held their nose to do so given that they didn’t even open up the competition for Heinicke or sign a player who might have more upside as a starter. They like Ridder, and the question is whether they still like him enough now at 4-4 and having seen Heinicke to keep going forward with Ridder as the starter. Again, the tea leaves seem to indicate that they will, but the weirdness around the substitution and the quality of Heinicke’s performance leave room for doubt.

It will be an admission that this part of their plan has failed if they bench Ridder for good now, and it will leave them to look for a long-term starting option from a disadvantaged position as a likely playoff-bound or playoff-adjacent team with a later pick and only a pair of aging established starters in Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill looking like semi-compelling options from the free agency class of 2024. It will merit a conversation about why the team chose that plan and that path, but for now, that conversation will wait as we wait to see what the Falcons do with Ridder, Heinicke, and their quarterback position heading into Week 9. The controversy over who should be playing quarterback will outlast the decision, either way.