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Falcons to start Taylor Heinicke against Colts, ending Desmond Ridder’s tenure as starter

Atlanta’s quarterback bungling has helped derail a once-promising season, and now Heinicke will be asked to save it.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons all but anointed Desmond Ridder a starter over the summer, but the gears had begun turning for that end well before the announcement. This franchise spoke glowingly of Ridder when they drafted him, parked Marcus Mariota for a look at him late in 2022, declined to sign a quarterback to actually compete with him for the starting gig and declared themselves out of the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes-that-wasn’t immediately, and treated him like an established starter when they parked him for most of the preseason.

Every indication was that this team believed Desmond Ridder could be their starter for the 2023 season and perhaps longer. With the news today that Ridder has been benched for the second time this season in favor of Taylor Heinicke, that belief has been shaken and perhaps has evaporated entirely.

This is a desperate move for Arthur Smith, who knows he may be coaching for his job and has to do something following two straight ugly losses in the NFC South. It is also the culmination of a series of choices that left the Falcons adrift at a position where they once had stability and excellence for over a decade, choices that may lead to sweeping organizational changes for the franchise and will almost certainly require a massive trade or top draft choice to try to remedy.

Why now?

The easy answer is that Desmond Ridder threw one of the worst interceptions you’ll see, an interception that effectively turned a near-certain victory into a loss, and that being the latest and perhaps worst in a long line of such turnovers for a team that’s two games under .500 meant the Falcons felt they had to shake things up.

Ridder was supposed to give the Falcons cheap, at least solid play in 2023, but for all the quality stretches and the very occasional brilliant moments, the turnovers have been the story of his year. Ridder has fumbled 11 times—that’s tied for the third-highest total in the league—and has tossed ten interceptions, which is tied for the 7th-highest total. Per Pro Football Focus, he is tied for the second-highest turnover-worthy play number in football, and all of those mistakes have undone any tangible progress he has made as a passer and runner. The Falcons could’ve survived and perhaps even thrived this year if Ridder had made half as many mistakes; instead, Ridder has revealed himself to be incapable of making the smart decision with the football in critical moments over and over again.

Taylor Heinicke has a reputation for slinging it without a care as to whether it might be intercepted, and he certainly has had one of the higher numbers of turnover-worthy plays in his time as a starter. Crucially, though, in his two-and-a-half games this year, Heinicke turned it over just once, and he’s at least a tick less likely to fumble a snap or throw a ball into triple coverage on a play where he’s supposed to just tuck it and run. It’s a low bar to clear—Heinicke was not very good in his starting stint earlier this season, which is part of why the Falcons went back to Ridder in the first place—but this team cannot lose again because Ridder gave the football away. Arthur Smith knows that, I suspect Ridder knows that, and Arthur Blank likely delivered that message somewhere along the way as well.

Against a tough Colts team, the Falcons will need to be really sharp on offense and count on their defense delivering. It’s a formula that works if you can avoid turnovers, and as this move attests, the Falcons finally have yielded to the evidence that Ridder could not do so.

Could they still go back to Ridder? If Heinicke is a complete disaster, I suppose it’s possible, though that would be tantamount to Arthur Smith hopping on Indeed.com looking for coordinator gigs. This is a move designed to give the Falcons a puncher’s chance of winning their final three games, pushing for a playoff spot, and keeping the band together. It’s not a very good shot—again, Heinicke showed little in his stint to make us believe the offense will thrive with him at the helm—but the Falcons felt rolling with Ridder was no longer tenable. While I think this season is doomed and we’re unlikely to see more than maybe one good game from Heinicke, I get it.

How did we get here?

Misplaced confidence and an unwillingness to make the tough choice, in a nutshell.

When I wrote about the history of third round quarterbacks in the NFL and noted how infrequently they work out, I still sounded a positive note for Ridder. It is infrequent, after all, that a third round quarterback is in a position to get starts early in his career, especially on a team with what should be a dominant ground game and some compelling options in the passing game. The Falcons’ evident belief in Ridder and the seeming likelihood that an improved defense and solid offense on paper would lift his fortunes made it seem like at worst, he might underwhelm a bit for a quality Atlanta squad and the team would have to mull whether to bring in competition or replace him outright.

The team proceeded as though even the underwhelming possibility was not much of a possibility, but you have to remember how curious that was. The Falcons went from being committed to Matt Ryan for 2022 to dumping the best quarterback in franchise history after they whiffed on Deshaun Watson, leaving the probable plan to have Ridder learn from a Falcons great blown to smithereens. Instead, they signed Marcus Mariota, who figured to start anywhere from four to eight games and then yield to Ridder, given that the Falcons seemingly drafted him with an eye on giving him a long-term crack as a starter. Instead, they clung to Mariota for 13 increasingly distressing games, with Smith proving to be maddeningly unwilling to pull the plug and get an honest evaluation for his rookie quarterback just because the Falcons were nominally in the playoff hunt.

Instead, we saw Ridder for just four games at the end of 2022, an up-and-down stint where he didn’t show us a whole lot. Nothing about that stint seemed to diminish the team’s enthusiasm for the young quarterback, but as I wrote in my third round evaluation article, the Falcons couldn’t and shouldn’t put all their eggs in Ridder’s basket. I stumped for them to add Jacoby Brissett this offseason as a proven high-end backup capable of quality play in the event that Ridder faltered this summer or during the season. I figured the team would want that caliber of fallback plan, given that no matter how much you like a young quarterback, there’s no guarantee they’ll work out. I was optimistic, again, but cautiously so.

Instead, the Falcons went all-in on Ridder. It’s impossible to know how much of that stemmed from Arthur Smith, from Terry Fontenot, from Arthur Blank, and so forth, but the team bowed out of the Lamar Jackson pursuit immediately. Even if you believe the Ravens wouldn’t have let him go—I certainly believed that—it was a bit surprising to see the team not even try. Instead, they wound up with Taylor Heinicke, a solid spot starter who could be a bit reckless and a cut below the best quarterbacks available on the market, and they declared Ridder would not be competing with him to start. The job belonged to Ridder.

For a team totally bought in, they were curiously laid back about the way they handled this offseason. Bijan Robinson was a big-time weapon to add, but the team’s #2 wide receiver was set to be Mack Hollins, coming off a terrific season in Las Vegas but not historically a high-end second option. That plus the drafting of Matthew Bergeron signaled the team would try to run a lot to take pressure off Ridder, but they would be asking him to rely heavily on Drake London, a returning-from-injury Kyle Pitts, a hopefully resurgent Jonnu Smith, and Robinson. The team also surprisingly declined to hire a dedicated quarterbacks coach or anyone in a passing-specific role after Charles London was nabbed by the Titans to oversee the development of Malik Willis and (eventually) Will Levis.

When you have a young quarterback you love but isn’t a sure thing to work out, building the best possible supporting cast and ensuring you have the right coaches to oversee his development has to be a priority. The Falcons missed badly on the latter, as it’s increasingly evident that Ridder either isn’t being coached effectively or simply is tuning that coaching out, given that his most pressing issues have not gotten any better. The former has gone a bit better—the pass protection has gotten better as the season wears on, London and Jonnu Smith have largely been excellent, etc.—but the ground game’s massive dip in effectiveness, Hollins’ injuries, and the generally lackluster state of the receiving corps, an up-and-down season for Pitts, and Robinson’s frustrating inconsistency as a passing option as he tries to settle into that role as a rookie have all conspired to work against Ridder’s success.

For all that, RIdder might still have worked out if not for the turnovers. The Falcons desperately wanted this to work and gave Ridder the opportunity, even if that ill-fated short-term benching was weird at the time and only looked more strange when they put him back in the lineup after the bye. In the end, the level of investment backfired spectacularly chiefly because Ridder simply could not stop putting the ball in harm’s way, a failure that is on his shoulders and will likely haunt him for a long time to come.

But let’s not kid ourselves: This is a Falcons foul-up. They bungled the Watson trade pursuit and were forced to move Ryan, they bungled Mariota’s 2022 season, and they bungled the way they handled Ridder’s move into the starting lineup, development, their handling of his struggles this year, and the level of competition they brought in for the job. This coaching staff (and maybe front office, we’ll see) could ill afford to tether themselves to a quarterback who helped sink this team’s fortunes in a critical third season of a three year plan, but that’s exactly what they’ve done. The move to Heinicke is too little, too late, and is unlikely to yield season-saving results for a franchise that has now spent three seasons failing to get the most vital position on an NFL roster right. That’s particularly true because Arthur Smith’s offense is foundering, and it wasn’t exactly spectacular with Heinicke under center, either.

For those of us who thought Ridder could at least be a quality starter, this is all sorely disappointing. For the Falcons, it’s borderline catastrophic, given the on-field results.

What’s next for Ridder?

If it’s a role the team is comfortable with him settling into and Ridder himself will embrace it, he’s likely ticketed for the backup role in Atlanta for 2024 and perhaps beyond. Now with a full season of starting experience under his belt and capable of stretches of fine play, Ridder will be a young, affordable fallback option for the next franchise quarterback in Atlanta should injury arise. With time to develop and reflect, it’s possible that Ridder does iron out some of his decision-making and turnover issues to become a high-end backup or even the kind of journeyman starter that, say, Teddy Bridgewater or Jacoby Brissett were for a few years there. His NFL future is not over, either way, and I still like his chances of having a fine career for a third round pick. It’s possible that the Falcons cut him outright, but given that he’ll be far cheaper than Heinicke and the team still seems to like him as a person and quarterback, I’d bet he’ll be back.

His future as a starter in Atlanta almost certainly is over, however. Arthur Smith might’ve been able to talk the franchise into bringing in more competition for Ridder heading into 2024 and still letting him strive for the starting job if Ridder had been a bit better and the team had at least been in the playoff hunt until the end of the year. Given the likelihood that the team finishes with a losing record yet again and that Ridder has now been benched twice, it’s difficult to see that happening now. The team’s belief in Ridder would have to be absolutely unshakable, and Ridder has done everything he can to shake it at this point. The opportunity was granted and the Falcons have their massive share of blame for how this all ended, but Ridder’s die is cast.

What’s next for the Falcons?

It’s Heinicke hour for the next three games. This is an opportunity for Heinicke to showcase a higher level of play in the hopes of clinging to his roster spot in 2024 as Atlanta’s backup if the team simply decides they’d be better off cutting ties with Ridder, or earning another contract as a backup elsewhere when the Falcons move on. Either way, the best-case scenario for Heinicke and this team would be elevated quarterbacking versus what Ridder has given them, an improbable late run, and a playoff game to save Arthur Smith’s job and give Heinicke positives for his next gig.

In the offseason, the Falcons finally have to reckon with their quarterback position with clear eyes. They’re not going to be able to draft a mid-round pick again and hope for the best, they can’t sign another stopgap starter and try to spin the tires a little more productively, and they can’t simply bank on Ridder spending an offseason becoming the quarterback they thought he’d be heading into 2023. The position requires an investment, either in the form of early round draft capital (a trade up, the selection of LSU’s Jayden Daniels or Washington’s Michael Penix, etc.) or a big swing for a free agent like Kirk Cousins or a trade for Kyler Murray. Signing Ryan Tannehill to compete with Ridder or drafting, say, a moldable-but-flawed quarterback like Quinn Ewers to do the same has the potential to waste another season and ensure a coaching staff clearout. If one is on the way anyways, Terry Fontenot and company will almost certainly be asked to draft the next franchise guy for the next Falcons head coach. Even if Smith is here, Fontenot will likely be eager to get this thing right to help keep himself in the job and improve Atlanta’s fortunes, which means I fully expect a top pick to be used on the position.

Regardless of how this all unfolds, it’s the price the Falcons must pay for the way their quarterback situation has unfolded. An unwillingness to get a longer, honest evaluation of Ridder in 2022 begat a decision to give themselves no margin of error with Ridder as the starter in 2023. You can think the risk was worthwhile and admire the ballsiness of it if you wish, but the time has to come to acknowledge the hard truth: It failed. The Falcons have fallen short of expectations for many reasons this season in a bitterly disappointing season, ranging from severe regression in their ground game to injuries to questionable coaching decisions, but their handling of quarterback will be at the forefront of every 2023 postmortem.