The Atlanta Falcons are making the switch to Taylor Heinicke as the team’s starting quarterback for Week 9 against the Minnesota Vikings, ending a few days of spirited speculation that began when they parked Desmond Ridder for Heinicke against the Titans.
Arthur Smith announced the move in a hotly-anticipated Wednesday press conference where he promised to tell fans and media who would be under center against the Vikings. Heinicke, who led the Falcons to 20 points in the second half and looked crisp and effective running the offense, will try to get Atlanta their fifth win of the season against a reeling Minnesota team down Kirk Cousins.
BREAKING: Head Coach Arthur Smith announced that this week Taylor Heinicke will be the starting QB. Just for this week. Desmond will be backup QB. #dirtybirds— Alison Mastrangelo (@AlisonWSB) November 1, 2023
It has been a whirlwind few days. Ridder did not come out after halftime for the Falcons, with reports that he was being checked for a concussion. He was ultimately cleared, but the Falcons stuck with Heinicke, who was rolling against Tennessee and nearly completed the comeback. After Sunday, when Arthur Smith and Heinicke alike seemed to indicate the team would stick with Ridder, Smith seemed to open the door for a change in Monday’s presser. For at least one week, the switch has been made.
Taylor Heinicke will start for Atlanta this week. "This is not some grand statement for forever."— Josh Kendall (@JoshTheAthletic) November 1, 2023
For now, at least, Heinicke would seem to give this team their best shot to win. A quarterback who has his own career-long struggles with turnovers, Heinicke is a willing downfield passer who can throw on the move, scramble when he needs to, and makes very quick decisions, all of which helped him and this offense against Tennessee. While the turnovers will rear their head at some point, Heinicke played a very clean, efficient game against the Titans and has stretches where he’s done just that in his career as a starter. With plenty of weapons on hand and facing an opponent that may struggle offensively, I’d expect Heinicke to do well and make his case to hold on to this job.
For his career, Heinicke has 5,920 passing yards in 25 career starts, with 35 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, 478 rushing yards, a pair of rushing touchdowns, and 14 fumbles. At his best, he’s an efficient passer who is willing to challenge teams downfield, and when he’s on fire he can deliver sharp balls the way he did against the Titans. His mobility and decisiveness should help him to avoid sacks that Ridder too often took, and while he’s not the same caliber of rushing threat as, say, Marcus Mariota or Ridder at his best, Heinicke can punish defenses for not getting home with their pressure.
The downside, at least for his career to this point, has been that Heinicke still does take a considerable number of sacks and averages over a turnover per game, meaning some of the frustrations we had with Ridder are likely to show up in Heinicke’s game on Sundays. If the offense is better and less turnover-prone than it was throughout much of the first eight weeks, no one’s going to be particularly sour about that.
Ridder, meanwhile, heads to the bench for at least a week and maybe much longer. The young quarterback showed flashes of excellent passing this season but also turned the ball over far too often and at costly moments, and his lackluster half against Tennessee that featured yet another fumble at least contributed to Smith’s decision not to play him this week. He’ll hope to get another shot, but that’s far from guaranteed if Heinicke stays hot.
If this ends up being it for him in 2023, he finishes the year with 1,701 yards, six touchdown passes, six interceptions, and seven fumbles in just eight games to go with 139 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Arthur Smith’s evident appreciation for Ridder and this team’s investment in him means we can’t rule out Ridder getting back in the lineup, however, especially if Heinicke scuffles.
For the Falcons, nothing is yet written in stone beyond Week 9, but there will be big conversations to be had about the way the team has approached the quarterback position if Ridder is indeed parked for the rest of the year. For now, the hope will be that Heinicke plays well, pilots the Falcons to a much-needed win against Minnesota, and then we’ll get to see where Smith and the team take the position next.