The Atlanta Falcons’ decision to switch from Desmond Ridder to Taylor Heinicke at quarterback this week raises questions about the team’s direction under head coach Arthur Smith.
Heinicke now marks the fourth passer to take over as the team’s starter since Smith’s arrival in 2021. While Smith did not indicate this move is permanent, the notion that the Falcons could start playing musical chairs at the most important position on the field isn’t promising. So for the sake of all our collective sanity, let’s assume that Heinicke will finish 2023 as the team’s starter.
If that is the case, it inevitably will lead to questions over whether or not the Falcons will be back in the quarterback market next offseason. But obviously, there’s still a lot of football to be played this year before such determinations can be officially made.
But the possibility of the Falcons having their fifth starting quarterback in four seasons doesn’t bode well for the team’s future. It’ll be harder to buy that another quarterback change will lead to dramatically different results than the preceding ones. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four times though? There isn’t a proverb for being that gullible.
Things would be easier if the Falcons’ issues were solely the result of poor quarterback play. But unfortunately despite Ridder’s too-frequent turnovers getting most of the attention and scrutiny, perhaps the Falcons' biggest issue revolves around their lack of an offensive identity.
Of course, quarterbacks understandably get all the attention. They get all the credit when the team succeeds and all the blame when it fails, something Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone echoed during this week’s press conference.
However, I believe the Falcons' issues go beyond the quarterback. One of the reasons for the optimism surrounding Ridder entering the season was due to the belief that he’d be developed in an environment conducive to a quarterback’s success thanks to the Falcons dominant rushing attack.
That environment mirrored the same one that fostered former Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during his 2008 rookie season, when the team also had one of the premier rushing attacks in the NFL. Back then, the physical running of Michael Turner lifted a lot of the burden away from Ryan during his first year as a starter. One hoped that history would repeat itself this year thanks to the presence of running backs Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier. However, this year’s Falcons run game has taken a major step back from their 2022 success.
You might look at volume stats that indicate the team has a healthy ground game due to currently ranking 10th in rushing yards. But advanced metrics like Expected Points Added (EPA) tell a completely different story.
In 2022, the Falcons ranked fourth in rushing EPA and fifth in success rate according to the website Running Backs Don’t Matter. In 2023, the Falcons have fallen to 21st and 28th, respectively in those two metrics.
When you focus on early downs, where most NFL offenses tend to rely on their running game, the Falcons numbers look even worse. A year ago, the team ranked 12th in rushing EPA on first and second down, and again fifth in success rate. This year, those figures have fallen to 29th and 28th, respectively.
Those early-down struggles mean that the offense doesn’t stay on schedule in later downs where passing is more involved, which requires the quarterback to do a lot more heavy lifting for the offense to produce. And that has made the Falcons far more susceptible to Ridder’s youthful mistakes, such as turnovers.
One common conclusion is that the Falcons’ struggles on the ground are due to opposing defenses gearing up to stop the run more in 2023 than previously. But that’s a superficial conclusion, because none of the previous year’s opponents saw the Falcons as a pass-happy team. Defenses were absolutely just as prone to gearing up to stop the run in 2022. The simple truth is that the Falcons' run game worked a year ago, despite defenses knowing it was coming and isn’t working this year.
The only rational conclusion is that the 2023 Falcons are not as effective blocking up front as they were a year ago. Looking at the advanced metrics like rushing yards over expected from Next Gen Stats illustrates this reality. In 2022, Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson combined for 1,730 yards which included 221 more yards than expected. Subtracting the latter figure indicates that the blocking led to an expected 4.26 yards per carry. When looking at Allgeier and Robinson’s same numbers this year, the blocking is responsible for 3.86 yards per carry.
Understanding this decline in the ground game might inform why the Falcons made the switch to Heinicke. Perhaps if the team realizes they can no longer rely on their rushing attack to keep the offense on schedule, they’ll be more reliant on the pass to pick up the slack. Thus, the team believes that the veteran Heinicke is more capable of such heavy lifting.
Time will tell if that is true, but concerns about the team’s overall direction under Smith still linger. Whether here in Atlanta or previously in Tennessee, there is little evidence suggesting Smith can build a successful offense that isn’t primarily geared around the ground game. So much of the Falcons' offensive personnel was built with that physical identity in mind. But perhaps last month’s trade for wide receiver Van Jefferson signals a pivot away from that mindset to a more pass-centric attack. While Ridder has shown progress in the weeks since that move, perhaps it wasn’t at the pace the coaching staff preferred, prompting Heinicke’s promotion.
There won’t be a clear-cut answer from Smith behind that decision beyond it involving “a lot of variables.” This leaves questions about the Falcons' offensive identity for the remainder of 2023 unanswered. Will they try to become more of a high-flying passing attack under Heinicke since they may not be able to rely on the ground game to carry the offense as before?
Also, one cannot help but think of where things may be headed beyond this season. Would dropping another, new quarterback into the starting lineup given the uncertain identity of the offense lead to better results? And if they are shifting their identity away from the run, wouldn’t that involve a complete overhaul in their offensive personnel this offseason? That would be a dramatic shift in the fourth year after much was made about their “three-year plan” entering this season.
But the Falcons can’t cross that bridge until they get to it. In the meantime, they must figure out what their identity will be. Whether that revolves around the run, pass, or trying to balance both, they ultimately need to execute consistently on the field to get this team moving back in the right direction. If not, then it will only lead to questions over whether Smith should remain at the helm deciding that direction and something as important as who the team’s quarterback of the future should be.