Earlier today, we learned that the Atlanta Falcons are starting Desmond Ridder at quarterback again, going back to their Week 1 anointed starter. After a halftime benching complete with a concussion check against the Tennessee Titans and a pair of starts for Taylor Heinicke, the now 4-6 Falcons will hope that Ridder can help them salvage an increasingly lost season where the team is falling well short of expectations.
We’ll see if they can stick with the decision or not, but it’s worth diving into why this is happening, to the best of our ability to figure that out.
Why are the Falcons going back to Ridder?
If you truly believe in a player, you typically do not bench him, especially for multiple games. Yet the Falcons and Arthur Smith have at least paid lip service to the idea that Ridder is still the guy, and that the couple of weeks with Heinicke at the helm did not change that. NFL insiders positioned it as a “rest” or “reset,” with Arthur Smith refusing to illuminate much in recent weeks, citing a desire to protect his players.
From what is being reported, the situation was simple: Give Ridder a chance to sort himself out after weeks of alarming turnover numbers, see if Heinicke could go on the kind of stunning run that begged the team to keep him in the starting job, and failing that, go back to Ridder after the bye. Smith told us that the Falcons would choose a starter for the rest of the season during the bye, and now that decision is made.
From what I'm told, the Falcons believed the bulk of Ridder's mistakes were correctable & felt he had a lot of learning to do. A move back to him was always planned unless Taylor Heinicke went on a ridiculous run. It wasn't like they fell out of love with Ridder. Needed a reset. https://t.co/jNF4EZVsWs— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) November 19, 2023
The Falcons went back to Ridder in part because Heinicke did not flourish as the starter. In Week 8 against the Titans, he provided a nice spark for the offense. During stretches against Minnesota and Arizona, Heinicke threw crisp passes, evaded pressure effectively, and scrambled for tough yardage, but it was an inconsistent run not helped by the team’s ultra-conservative gameplan against the Cardinals. With Heinicke also injured against the Cardinals, there probably wasn’t much in the way of questions inside Flowery Branch about making the change back to Ridder, even if there are plenty of questions externally.
The other piece, again, is the seeming belief in Ridder. This is a team that made him the unquestioned starter in the spring, stuck with it in the summer, and stood by him in no uncertain terms despite the rash of turnovers...right up until the benching. The Falcons genuinely like Ridder, and while that isn’t going to prevent them from going out and getting another quarterback this coming offseason if he doesn’t really blossom over the final seven weeks, it was evident in the way they approached this season.
It seems ridiculous to say that Ridder was solid from, say, Weeks 5-7 if you take away the turnovers, but it’s clearly what the Falcons are looking at. The pace of turnovers was unacceptable and would doom the Falcons if it continued, but they clearly think a little time off will get Ridder to eliminate some of those, bringing the parts of his game they like (the increasing confidence in his ability to make plays with his legs, the sharp stretches of passing) to the fore and hopefully ironing out the accuracy and decision-making hiccups.
They’ll go back to him in part because of the organizational belief in him and partly because he’s the only quarterback with any hope of developing the rest of the way; the fact that he was young and taking his lumps in real-time was the best argument against benching him in the first place. A player with 12 career starts can figure things out if the talent and resilience is there—we’ve seen players with many more starts find another gear—and Ridder remains young and in his second NFL season. It’s clear the team doesn’t think a 30-year-old Heinicke, who showcased all the same issues that have bogged him down in the past in between those stretches of funslinging (not a typo) and playmaking, is going to find that gear.
Atlanta will hope there are strides, in other words, and that those strides combine with any bye week adjustments they’ve made to lift this team out of their long stretch of mediocrity. The Falcons have lost their last three games, have gone 2-6 since their 2-0 start, and have been unable to get it all figured out on offense. If Ridder can provide that lift at last, Atlanta’s still-easy schedule and weak division provide some hope they can salvage the season.
Will that actually happen? It would be difficult to bet on that, given this team’s recent fortunes and just how pronounced Ridder’s turnover problem was before he was benched. The Falcons are still doing so, and given that Ridder actually being the caliber of player the team wants him to be would be a great outcome for them, we’ll hope so even if we don’t expect so.
Will it last the season?
As Matthew Chambers said in his article earlier today, that’s really anyone’s guess.
The Falcons intend to keep Ridder under center, but he has already been benched once, and if he plays poorly in the next couple of weeks the team may well be tempted to go back to Heinicke in search of that elusive spark. Desperation in a lost season, especially a season where the Falcons were expected to contend for a playoff berth, could provide pressure to make a change back even if the team doesn’t really want to.
That said, while Heinicke did fine for the most part while filling in, he didn’t stand head and shoulders above what the Falcons were getting from Ridder and they lost his starts. That’s not fair to pin entirely or even primarily on Heinicke, but the knowledge that he’s unlikely to be able to start for multiple weeks and lift the offense to new heights will likely give Ridder a longer leash.
If Ridder plays well and the Falcons re-enter the playoff hunt in the NFC, the team will go back to bristling at the thought of parking him, and the drama will subside until the offseason.
What happens if it doesn’t work?
I considered this in my recent article about the quarterback situation, but the short answer is that the season likely ends in disappointing fashion, Arthur Smith goes into 2024 on the hot seat if he remains the head coach, and the Falcons look to replace Ridder via trade, free agency, or (preferably) the draft.
For a season so many of us were genuinely excited about, that would be a horrendous outcome, and the reports that Smith would retain his job means there’s not likely to be massive organizational changes to follow it. It would be hard to imagine that Ridder sticking in the job if this falls apart any further, either way.
The Falcons put themselves in a position where Ridder had to be solid to win this season, an expectation that didn’t seem unreasonable but proved to be thanks in large part to the backbreaking, repeated interceptions and fumbles from the young quarterback. After a reset, a rest, a benching, or whatever else you want to call it, the team is back to that same spot. This is their last chance to salvage the 2023 season’s once-considerable promise and for Ridder to prove he belongs as the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, and with their backs well and truly against the wall, we’ll see how team and player really respond to adversity starting in Week 12 against the Saints.