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What we do and don’t know about the switch to Taylor Heinicke

Atlanta’s big change at quarterback comes loaded with questions.

Atlanta Falcons v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Falcons have benched Desmond Ridder. Arthur Smith took pains to say that this was a one-week decision, but all Taylor Heinicke has to do is play well and the Falcons are likely to make it a long-term switch. At its most basic level, this is the case of a team benching an underperforming player in search of a spark, which is especially needed as Atlanta sits at 4-4 with a 2-4 record since their very welcome 2-0 start.

What has been harder to understand, given the lack of helpful context from the folks making the actual decision, are the why and the why now. Ridder was under center after throwing back-to-back picks against Jacksonville, after throwing three interceptions in a loss against Washington, and after fumbling three times against the Buccaneers. What was it about a shaky first half in Tennessee and a costly fumble that became the moment to bench him? More importantly, what will Heinicke give the Falcons that Ridder wasn’t?

We don’t have any concrete answers to that first question, but let’s tackle a quick primer, nonetheless.

Why did the Falcons make the change?

There may be concerns about health with Desmond Ridder that the team is tiptoeing around, but the likelier explanation is just that Ridder’s play was hurting the team’s chances of winning games. The Falcons have been surprisingly reluctant to admit that, and it stands out when you compare it to the kindly but blunt criticism Marquice Williams offered for punt returner Mike Hughes on Thursday.

Ridder has seven turnovers in the past three weeks, including a backbreaking first half fumble against the Titans, and some of his bad habits in terms of sitting and taking sacks and missing easy throws re-appeared in Week 8 after a multi-week layoff. You can like Ridder and think he’ll be a good quarterback someday—I still do, especially after he made some tangible progress as a passer over the past month before it unraveled in Week 8—and still very much believe that the team is having a tougher time winning games with him under center than they should be. If Ridder were playing better and were more careful with the football, I virtually guarantee you he’d be out there against Minnesota, so the curious concussion sideshow should be ignored given that he was cleared and the team has been unwilling to say anything more about it.

This particular matchup likely played a factor, as well. Few quarterbacks have struggled under pressure to the extent that Ridder has, and he’s had a particularly high percentage of pressures turn into sacks because of his decision-making and pocket presence. Minnesota has the highest blitz rate in the league and the deadly Danielle Hunter will line up against Kaleb McGary, who has struggled in pass protection all year. Getting a quarterback in there who can handle that pressure more effectively and get rid of the ball more quickly this week had to feel like a logical choice for the coaching staff.

Simply put, the Falcons think Heinicke makes them a better team in the here and now, and . It’s very difficult to argue with that notion given how unproductive the offense has been, especially in the red zone, before the second half of last Sunday’s game.

What does Heinicke bring to the table?

Quicker decision-making, a better feel for navigating pressure, and an ability to hit the easy-to-intermediate throws more consistently, the way he did on that beautiful ball to Scotty Miller. He’s also willing and able to challenge defenses deep in a way that Ridder has not done consistently, even if the results won’t always be pretty.

One of Ridder’s greatest flaws this season, which briefly ebbed in Weeks 6 and 7 before returning with a vengeance in Week 8, is his habit of not making quick decisions. When pressure is on the way, when nobody is open, when he can’t quite get the look he wants, Ridder double clutches, moves backwards, and hangs in there until he’s sacked, has to force an unwise throw, and so on. He’s taken far too many sacks, and in turn fumbled too many times, doing just that.

You should see immediate improvement in that regard from Heinicke, based just on what we saw from him against Tennessee, and also his track record in Washington. Heinicke often holds on to the ball for a while—his average time to throw for his career is above 2.9 seconds and was on Sunday, a mark that would put him at 11th in the league this year—but he’s generally on the move with purpose while doing so. The ball leaves his hand faster and with less hesitation when he’s ready to throw, and while Ridder has genuinely made strides in terms of how quickly he’s willing to tuck and run when he needs to, Heinicke has always had few qualms about doing so when it’s necessary.

There is nothing spectacular about Heinicke, as he doesn’t have the strongest arm, the fastest wheels, or the best accuracy you’ll ever see. When he’s rolling, though, Heinicke does a lot of things pretty well and is simply more decisive and quick than Ridder is right now. That will matter against Minnesota’s potentially withering pressure, and it should help smooth out some of the frustrations and inconsistency in this passing game. Heinicke won’t be shy about challenging that Vikings secondary with Atlanta’s cast of playmakers, and that confidence is a big deal for this offense.

There is really only one standout concern for Heinicke, and it doesn’t loom as large as it would if Ridder wasn’t such a turnover machine in his own right. In 2022, Heinicke was tied for the ninth-highest turnover-worthy play number in the league with 19, and he appeared in far fewer games than anyone else ahead of him on the list. In 2021, he had the second-most turnover-worthy plays in the NFL and the fouth-highest turnover-worthy play rate among full-time starters. The price you play for Heinicke’s quick trigger is skittishness at times, and if the pressure does get home, Heinicke sometimes rushes throws, regardless of where a defender may be in front of him.

The one blemish on Heinicke’s day Sunday was a potential interception on the first drive that luckily was not picked off; we will hope that luck continues in a way it certainly didn’t for Ridder. With a season-and-a-half of starting under his belt and having been in the league since 2015, this is just something that’s innate to Heinicke’s game at this point. If you’re expecting a reduction in turnovers, that’s reasonable given the ridiculous pace Ridder was on. If you’re expecting a turnover free Sunday against the Vikings, well, don’t hold your breath.

On balance, though, Heinicke has an established track record of turning in consistently efficient, effective performances marred by a frustrating turnover or two per game. This Falcons team should be able to win with that.

Will the Falcons go back to Ridder after Week 9?

It’s possible, however crazy that might sound. The Falcons have refused to make this a clean break, and with Arthur Smith insisting it’s only for a week and Dave Ragone echoing him on Thursday.

I’ve noted that Occam’s Razor for the team’s protectiveness toward Ridder is this: They really think he can be their guy, even after all of this. Everything about the way they teed up the starting job for him this year, all the care to avoid a camp battle and avoid pursuing competition or outright replacements, and the way they’ve talked about the young quarterback all year suggest that.

If that’s the case, then there may well be a genuine desire to protect him from taking a beating against a blitz-happy Vikings defense and giving him a week or two to work on the problems plaguing his game without the pressure of being out there on Sunday. That would be a rare, surprising thing for any NFL team to do with their starting quarterback, but it’s difficult to believe the Falcons would go to such lengths to emphasize this change being just for this week if they were not seriously thinking about re-inserting Ridder into the lineup at some point.

Given that Arthur Smith has gone to the mat for Ridder so many times while pointing out his crunch-time performances and improvement as a passer and decision-maker before last Sunday, it seems likely that he in particular believes in Ridder as a player the team can still develop and win with. Was his hand forced by that disappointing first half after all those up-and-down weeks, or was there pressure from further up in the organization to at least make a short-term change in service of chasing a victory? That’s conspiracy-minded thinking, but it’s hard not to indulge that given how weird and tight-lipped the team has been about their own thinking. It’s at least a sharp reversal from the way the team was talking after, say, the Commanders and Buccaneers games.

Because the team has been so reluctant to shed light on why Ridder was pulled, why he’s not starting Sunday, and when and if he might return to the lineup, we’re left to guess at exactly what’s going on here. All that vague talk of “variables” is not exactly illuminating, as the Falcons well know. In the absence of any information that’s worth expanding on, I’ve taken my best guess above at it being performance-and-opponent-related. Everything aside from “Heinicke is starting and Ridder isn’t” is guesswork, at this point, and that includes Ridder’s long-term status as a starter.

I think much depends on how Heinicke fares, because if he’s excellent on Sunday, he’ll get the Cardinals game at minimum. If he falters, all bets are off.

What’s the long-term plan at quarterback?

Who the hell knows, at this point.

The Falcons went from Matt Ryan to pursuing Deshaun Watson to reportedly being interested in a half-dozen quarterbacks they were never definitively linked with to drafting Desmond Ridder to starting Marcus Mariota to Ridder being the guy to Heinicke. If Ridder’s stint as a starter is over, Heinicke would needs to be absolutely lights out to become a multi-year option in Atlanta. Otherwise, this team will effectively be starting over, which may be part of the reason there’s such reluctance to let Ridder go in Flowery Branch.

The level of organizational investment in Ridder has left the Falcons in a tough spot if he’s not their franchise quarterback, especially for 2024. Atlanta has all their early round picks, so they can get a quarterback or trade up to snag one, but it’s not necessarily going to be easy to do so if they finish in, say, the 20s at the end of the 2023 season. The trade market is not expected to be particularly fruitful—Kyler Murray may be available, and he’d be easily the best option I can see being worth chasing—and free agency will have a fresh-off-an-injury Kirk Cousins and left-on-the-stove-too-long Ryan Tannehill. The compelling options will be costly, much more costly than drafting a quarterback in the top ten in 2021 or 2023 would have been, and there are no guarantees the Falcons won’t simply be outbid to, say, move into the top ten.

That’s a problem for the future, but not the far future, assuming Ridder doesn’t re-enter the lineup soon and stick. There’s always the possibility that Atlanta lands in exactly the right spot to select a J.J. McCarthy out of Michigan, a Shedeur Sanders out of Colorado, or a Michael Penix Jr. out of Washington, assuming they would be interested in one of those players. If the Falcons falter this year, whether Heinicke or Ridder remains under center for it, having to start over developing a rookie might be unappealing for a coaching staff and (maybe) front office that would enter 2024 on the hot seat, however. If it comes to that in the offseason, it will be worth having a long conversation about this team’s mismanagement of the quarterback position under the current regime, and I promise you we will.

This year was supposed to be different in ways it has not been for the Atlanta Falcons, and it’s not difficult to imagine that Arthur Blank and Rich McKay are none too pleased about that. Winning is the great elixir for uncertainty and failure, however, and ultimately the Falcons believe they have a better shot at winning against the Vikings (and perhaps beyond) with Taylor Heinicke at quarterback. As complicated and murky as the Falcons have chosen to make this situation, that simple truth still shines through.