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Coming to terms with the disappointment of Desmond Ridder and Arthur Smith

After weeks of hoping for change and some form of consistency, the Falcons sunk to a new low in Carolina. The season feels over, which leads to reflecting on how it all went wrong for what was supposed to be a dynamic offense.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Writing off a team still in the playoff race with three games to go can be considered harsh. In what has been one of the most unpredictable, uneven NFL seasons in recent memory, there are plenty of possibilities when determining how the playoff field can unravel.

Even so, bringing any optimism to the prospect of the Atlanta Falcons having any meaningful role in the field is impractical. They could potentially eliminate the Saints in the last week of the regular season, but there’s minimal evidence to suggest this team can recover from a catastrophic defeat in Carolina and do something they haven’t done all season, which is put together a three-game winning streak.

Narrow defeats will usually have people assessing certain plays and pinpointing personnel errors. There were some defensive shortcomings in moments, as to be expected. No matter how lopsided a matchup looks on paper, a coverage bust will likely happen at some point. The same can be said about getting blown up against the run, which was bound to happen given David Onyemata’s absence.

For the few big plays allowed, the Falcons had more than enough to secure a favorable win and put themself in prime position to compete for first place. Instead, they faltered primarily due to the two individuals who have ultimately let the team down the most this season. That is the current starting quarterback and head coach.

Self-Destructing at the Most Important Position

There were genuine signs of progression from Desmond Ridder against the Saints. After returning to the starting lineup following being benched for two games, he played with greater command in the pocket and made sharp decisions. There was decisiveness when throwing the ball and knowing when to scramble. Much as it has been the case with Ridder this season, he did commit two turnovers. The positives far outweighed the negatives, as his performance was highlighted by a terrific looping touch pass to Bijan Robinson while under duress from a free-rushing Pete Werner. That win appeared to mark a possible season-changing victory that could help regain the embattled quarterback’s confidence and control under center.

Even on a difficult day in nasty conditions against the Jets’ vaunted defense, Ridder didn’t put the ball in danger and mostly played with caution. It was only the third time all season he didn’t turn the ball over as a starter. The signs of growth proved to be mere illusions that the former third-round pick was developing into a capable quarterback.

His issues of reading coverages, progressing through reads, and processing the field were fully displayed against Tampa Bay. It was one of his more reckless performances that put the entire team at a disadvantage. He was incredibly fortunate he only committed two turnovers. A better defense forces more. Then again, it doesn’t matter what defense he faces at this point. If Ridder is forced to operate out of structure, the play tends to result in something benefiting the opposing defense.

Ridder is tied for the third-most turnovers in the league with 16. What is most alarming is that six of those turnovers have occurred in the red zone. His fumble near the end zone off a well-timed zone read against Tampa Bay to turn a probable touchdown into zero points looked impossible to top on his list of most painful, self-inflicted turnovers this season. He managed to top it at the worst possible time against Carolina. With the Panthers incapable of scoring a touchdown, the Falcons were in pole position to essentially put the game away in the red zone. That all changed when Ridder decided to force the ball into a passing window that didn’t exist outside the pocket.

There is no telling what Ridder saw in that moment to make himself believe he could connect with Kyle Pitts. Jaycee Horn, Vonn Bell, and Xavier Woods were all in range of making a play on the ball. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell shows here, Horn passes off Drake London and tracks Pitts. He reads Ridder’s eyes, which are fixated on hitting Pitts for a first down. All while this is happening, London is open after sitting on his route on what becomes a congested play with no spacing. Ridder fails to assess his options (which included tucking the ball down and running) and attempts to do his best Patrick Mahomes’ impression by side-arm slinging a dart on the move toward the sideline.

The pass looks like a well-thrown ball filled with velocity, only to land in the waiting arms of Woods. Instead of setting his feet and seeing the field to recognize an open London, he gets caught up in the moment, trying to make the spectacular play instead of the sensible decision. His tendency to assume he can make a tight-window throw and not read the field properly frequently leads to costly turnovers.

Ridder hasn’t been seeing the field well for most of the season. He was fortunate not to throw another interception in the direction of Pitts last week as he looked off linebacker K.J. Britt, thinking the young linebacker would follow his eyes. Britt stayed disciplined in his zone area and should have capitalized on an errant forced throw from Ridder, who just assumed a passing window was there with Pitts running an in-breaking route. Another near interception transpired against Carolina, where Ridder didn’t even look to see if any defenders were around Robinson on a checkdown. He threw it to him, assuming the safe throw was there, yet Brian Burns was waiting for the pass and nearly took advantage of another perplexing decision as the ball bounced off his hands.

The story of Ridder’s season has been turnovers, but it goes deeper when you see him operating in the pocket and forced to play off schedule. There are too many self-inflicted errors consisting of him running straight into interior linemen, failing to protect the ball, throwing the ball into tight coverage with multiple defenders around, and not processing coverage alignments. He’s gained enough experience at this point, where he has to learn from his mistakes and grow as a passer. Neither has happened after a difficult start to the season to go along with the natural development an organization wants to see from a young quarterback.

Ridder has benched twice in the last two months, which makes it clear he is not in the future of Atlanta. That’s the first of two major organizational realizations the Falcons must have going into 2024.

Offensive Regression Starts With Coaching

After overachieving with two limited offenses in his first two years as head coach, this was supposed to be the season Arthur Smith’s vision came to full effect. It’s well-documented how much the team put into adding stellar young players at the skill positions. They put significant investment into the offensive line. For all the concerns about the quarterback position, Smith decided to put full belief into Ridder and make him the operator of his offense. That’s resulted in one of the most disjointed, languishing offenses in the league. Averaging slightly over 18 points per game indicates how much of a colossal disappointment the season has been.

The coaching staff hasn’t done much to scheme open plays or best utilize its playmakers. The way they struggle to produce out of empty sets is alarming, considering the off-season discussions about playing positionless football. As exciting as it sounds, it won’t translate into explosive plays when Jonnu Smith and Cordarrelle Patterson are two of the standard five players in the formation. That normally also includes Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson, which leads to a few burning questions.

How can an offense attempt to create mismatches and stretch the field with one true wide receiver on the field in Drake London? Where are the crafty route runners to create separation to convert on third down? These are questions that were never answered. Attempting to produce any semblance of a quick, short passing game rhythm is unfeasible with the personnel. Overcoming the inability to generate explosive plays in the passing game proved to be insurmountable when the coaching staff’s concepts weren’t creating enough spacing and putting personnel at a disadvantage too often.

An inability to add quality pass catchers to the roster has to fall on Arthur Smith. After being considered a capable number two wide receiver when they signed him, Mack Hollins’ most memorable moment of the season is walking barefoot in a Charlotte rainstorm. Van Jefferson has made more impact plays for opposing defenses than the offense. Scotty Miller hasn’t contributed enough for someone who should be an effective role player. Jonnu Smith has made his mark, but it shouldn’t be considered a significant feat given the history in Tennessee.

Other than a few flashes from KhaDarel Hodge, it’s hard to find ways how Smith’s offense made any of the personnel better this season. They’ve all consistently underwhelmed or been misused. Some of it falls on the players, but it’s not like a former Super Bowl champion in Jefferson or a productive wide receiver in a solid offense in Hollins suddenly forgot to play football. The coaching staff has failed to maximize their greatest attributes, along with whoever is playing quarterback failing to throw accurate passes to them.

For all the frustration surrounding the passing game, there is no bigger gauge of the offense’s failures than what has transpired in the running game. According to The Ringer’s Benjamin Solak, the Falcons’ rushing success rate was third-best in the NFL last season. They are currently 23rd this season. More crowded boxes and Marcus Mariota’s rushing threat can be mentioned as some of the reasons for the decreased production.

That can’t be used as the primary reason for a staggering decline. Not for a team that used the eighth overall pick on the most prolific running back prospect since Saquon Barkley. Not for a team with the same personnel across the offensive line from last season except at left guard, where Matthew Bergeron has been an upgrade despite struggling at the start of the season.

The predictability in blocking concepts between Robinson and Tyler Allgeier has become easily identifiable for opposing defenses. The tendency to focus on running toward one particular side has limited their effectiveness. With Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary sidelined against Carolina, they were fixated on running to the left despite seeing constant overloads to the weak side. When they tried to get more creative, it resulted in bizarre calls like having Allgeier lead block for Robinson on third and two. Frankie Luvu blew up the second-year running back and dropped Robinson for a one-yard loss. Smith proceeded to call another run to the left on the next play, which was stuffed on 4th and three.

According to The Athletic’s Robert Mays, the Falcons were held to no gain or lost yards on 45% of their running plays against Carolina. That’s unacceptable for an offense that built its identity on running the ball, facing the worst team in the NFL. Missing two starters on the offensive line is undoubtedly difficult to cope with, but there’s no way a team that prides itself on running the ball can be so incapable of gaining yardage on the ground.

Smith didn’t use much misdirection or creativity to schematically create openings. It was just accepted they would struggle to run the ball with the typical outside and inside zone concepts.

Addressing Failures and Moving Forward

The Falcons were nationally praised for building one of the most dynamic ground games last season. How they’ve suddenly become a lackluster attack after putting resources into making them even more lethal is one of the biggest causes behind why Smith’s job status should be seriously questioned. There is nothing about the offense that has improved his season. What was the foundation of their success on the ground with a punishing running style is now considered fairly preventable for opposing defensive fronts.

What was supposed to be a more balanced, multi-dimensional offense couldn’t be more fragmented based on how the personnel is constantly running poor routes or blowing assignments to experimenting with far too many play concepts without ever finding a few staples that can be effectively used to move the ball.

There is no progress with this offense. It’s been a season of flashes with one good game a month, followed by consistent unorganized and uninspired offensive showings with self-inflicted turnovers committed nearly every game. The quarterback and head coach have to be most accountable for these failures. In a season where the schedule couldn’t have been more favorable, and the division couldn’t be more in disarray, the Falcons managed to waste a golden opportunity to build towards a prosperous future.

They were likely going to be in the quarterback market in the off-season, but the fact that Ridder couldn’t stay on the field due to his propensity for committing mind-numbing turnovers makes you question how the organization values talent at the most valuable position. It also raises concern about why Smith should be trusted to lead this team. As much as he has high self-belief in his methods and decisions, this season inspires minimal confidence that the organization should believe in him to build a capable offense that can compete with the NFL’s best.