The Atlanta Falcons had a franchise quarterback for well over a decade, and the end of those particular eras are never very graceful. Over the past three seasons, the Falcons have moved on from a legend in Matt Ryan and entertained several avenues to replace him. The important takeaway right now is that none of those have really worked out, and they’re in the midst of wrestling with where to go next.
There’s a longer article about the quarterback situation to come, but for today, let’s stick with where we are now. The Falcons did not have to come into this year betting everything on Desmond Ridder with only Taylor Heinicke as a fallback plan, but they did, with an almost surreal amount of confidence in one or both of those players producing at a high enough level for this offense to hum. I say that as one of the fans who thought Ridder could be, at worst, a serviceable starter.
Ten weeks into the season, the offense is anything but humming, and the quarterback situation is anything but settled. The team is fresh off a game where the Falcons seemingly were petrified to let Heinicke work deep, resulting in a 55 yard game through three-plus quarters for the veteran. He injured his hamstring on a nice scramble in the fourth quarter and gave way to Ridder, who had his nice moments but looked largely rusty throwing the ball. The team has exactly one great passing performance all season, and that came all the way back in Week 5 with Ridder. The red zone offense is mediocre even if it’s improving, the efficiency of the passing game is not present, and turnovers have marred the team at every turn. Heinicke had a chance to really seize this gig after taking over from Ridder, the same way Ridder had an opportunity to seal up the job by starting strong and playing well in the first several weeks of the season. Thus far, neither player has been able to do so.
The result is that we’re now facing a bye week with the Falcons set to mull two major quarterback decisions. The first is a short-term one that the team will pray can help them win some games starting in Week 12 against the Saints. The second is a long-term one that the team has to get right to lift themselves out of quarterback purgatory. It’s worth giving both the weight they deserve.
Bye week switch?
The Falcons plugged Heinicke into the lineup in Week 8 against the Titans with Ridder not playing well and facing a nebulous concussion issue that Arthur Smith struggled to articulate. Heinicke gave them a second half spark that brought the Falcons within striking distance of Tennessee, and the team decided at least a short-term change was in order.
That was a sharp about-face from Smith defending Ridder against “toxic group-think” and the like, and Smith all but alluded to something going on behind the scenes that sparked the change, even if he would only darkly gesture toward it instead of saying it. The fact of the matter was that Ridder was the player the Falcons had committed to but was not playing well enough to stick in the job in the face of a credible alternative, having turned the ball over seven times in 2.5 games in a series of bonehead mistakes that were driving fans crazy. The strides he was making as a passer seemed to evaporate in Week 8 against the Titans, and the turnovers were costing the Falcons games, with six interceptions and seven fumbles in 7.5 games against six touchdown passes and three touchdown runs. The question was whether Heinicke would be able to take hold of the job and run with it, or if the benching would essentially amount to a “sit and think about what you did” for Ridder.
Since then, Heinicke has completed about 55% of his passes for 323 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in seven-plus quarters, adding nine runs for 68 yards. That’s far from awful, but it hasn’t been particularly inspiring, and it has underscored how dysfunctional the entire passing attack is in a way that I’m sure the coaching staff is not thrilled about. A switch away from Ridder was supposed to help the Falcons win games; instead, they spent two games making Smith’s offense look worse, squandered two games that could’ve been development time for the quarterback the Falcons decided to invest in this offseason, and lost both.
You can argue that the Falcons really had no good options and that giving Heinicke a chance made sense; I have been receptive to that argument. The fact remains that this entire situation has been a rolling disaster, and the Falcons managed to handle it poorly and furtively throughout, with the team taking pains not to say it was Ridder’s performance and to leave the door open for him to take back the job.
The hamstring injury and Heinicke’s so-so performance will likely give the Falcons all they need to go back to Ridder, as I suspect they want to after the bye. Ridder was Plan A this season and Smith’s defense of him has seemed genuine throughout, so getting him back in the lineup with whatever time or message Smith wanted to send over the past two weeks is probably the closest thing to the head coach’s ideal outcome as is possible after the many problems this season has brought up.
They’ll cross their fingers and pray that a couple of weeks to stew on his mistakes will help the young quarterback make fewer of them, and that he’ll make enough progress to deliver the version of himself the Falcons thought they were getting all along. If Ridder can iron out the turnovers and look like the passer he did against, say, the Buccaneers and Texans, the Falcons have a pretty good chance of at least staying in the NFC South. If not, and maybe even if, the second decision awaits.
The franchise guy
If the Falcons seriously considered Ridder to be a lackluster option, they never gave us any public sign of it. There were rumors that they checked in on Kyler Murray and Ryan Tannehill, but those rumors were not confirmed or reported with any rigor, and the team very publicly declined to chase Lamar Jackson. The team instead signed a player in Heinicke who had shown to be a credible, scrappy short-term starter when called upon, but wasn’t a real threat to Ridder’s job. The Falcons also made it very, very clear that it was Ridder’s job, declining to open up the competition and barely playing him in preseason.
I’m on record believing that Ridder can be a good quarterback, but not a great one, and that it’s only a matter of time before he reaches that ceiling. The question has always been how quickly he could get there and how good that good would be, and thus far the answer has been “not quickly enough” and “not good enough.” I supported the team giving Ridder his shot throughout the spring and summer but was surprised they didn’t chase Lamar Jackson or pursue a higher-end backup, with my personal choice being Jacoby Brissett, but the level of investment in Ridder was hard to ignore. Surely in a crucial year, this show of faith was warranted? Alas.
Suggesting the Falcons had some grand plan outside of Ridder, then, is overly kind to this front office and coaching staff, and neatly ignores their words and actions for the better part of a calendar year. If they had not believed Ridder could take the job and run with it, there were many ways to remedy that particular problem, all of which would have strengthened their position for this year if Ridder wasn’t good or simply lost the job in a competition this summer. They did not, and they’re paying the price of that faith/stubbornness right now, with nothing left for them to do but hope that Ridder becomes that guy over the final seven games.
That leads us to the end of the season, where the team suddenly has another big quarterback decision to make. Barring Ridder flourishing—and I mean flourishing, not merely turning in a solid stretch as a starter—the Falcons have to go get another quarterback in the offseason. Ridder can remain as the team’s backup for at least the life of his contract, a role that he’ll be well-suited for, and Atlanta will feel good about his ability to step in if the need arises. After cycling Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, and Taylor Heinicke in the past three seasons, that’s going to sting, but through ten games it feels not just necessary but franchise-derailing to avoid doing so unless Ridder truly arrives.
If Atlanta really falls apart down the stretch and finishes with five or fewer wins, they could have the kind of pick that will allow them to draft one of the top non-Drake Maye or Caleb Williams options, or even swap up for a shot at one of them. In the much likelier case that they win anywhere from 2-4 of their final seven games, they’ll likely be at the back end of the top ten or perhaps much later, complicating any efforts to get their guy. That could open the door for an expensive trade for Kyler Murray, a much cheaper trade for a budget short-term starter, or a big free agent deal for the only worthwhile free agent-quarterback-to-be, Kirk Cousins. In any scenario, the Falcons went from studiously avoiding spending big on the position this past offseason to likely surrendering huge dollars, huge draft capital, or both to address quarterback this coming spring. Remember, the shots at Justin Fields and veterans have been there; the Falcons declined for Ridder-related reasons and ones we can only speculate about.
Sitting here right now with the team set to determine Ridder’s short-term future and with the team sinking, the path they’ve taken to get here looks like a costly failure. They now have to decide not only who should be under center next year, but if the coaching staff and scheme in place will give that quarterback a better chance to succeed than Ryan, Mariota, Ridder, and Heinicke have been afforded to this point.
The still-flickering dream for the Falcons is that they’ll be able to salvage both the season and their investment in Ridder, emerging from the year with some sort of triumph. In the likely scenario that we don’t get to enjoy that dream world, this is a a grim place to be for this Falcons team, one with no certain or inexpensive roads to success. For all that, a grimmer outcome still would be missing out finding a long-term solution at the most important spot on the roster, cost be damned.