The Atlanta Falcons wanted to be a test case for a different way of handling the quarterback position, if only because their bungled pursuit of Deshaun Watson cost them that quarterback option and the best passer in franchise history after they shipped Matt Ryan out in the aftermath. Atlanta would find a player they liked in the draft without sinking in a top ten pick, sign savvy veterans to bridge and serve as fallback options, and build up an offense filled with playmakers so that player could succeed.
I don’t think the Falcons expected that experiment to generate elite quarterback play, but I think in their hubris and hope they believed they would not need it. All Marcus Mariota, and then Desmond Ridder, and then Taylor Heinicke would have to do is play competent football without turning the ball over too much. The rest would be simply a matter of Arthur Smith applying his bright ideas to the offense and studs like Kyle Pitts, Drake London, and Bijan Robinson would make things happen.
That’s simplifying the argument and the thought process, naturally, but not overmuch. The Falcons carried outsized confidence in Mariota, Ridder, and Heinicke throughout the past two seasons, and their lack of interest in finding other options made it seem as though they felt they had a plan that could not fail on their hands. Instead, the plan did fail, with Marcus Mariota turning it over 17 times in 13 games last year, Ridder turning it over an unbelievable 24 times in 15 games, and Heinicke joining the party with five turnovers in parts of five games. That failure ultimately cost Arthur Smith his job, and as I wrote back in November, the Falcons now have no easy or inexpensive way to remedy their quarterback situation.
That’s a problem of their own making, and if it was nearly impossible to foresee Ridder turning the ball over at the clip he did, the upside was always capped with the choices the team made at quarterback. Atlanta badly wanted to build an elite roster with an affordable quarterback, and if the idea was an appealing one, there was an obvious necessity to have a quality fallback plan if that didn’t work out. The Falcons did not, and now they find themselves down a head coach, with no long-term answer at the quarterback position, and coming off another lost season.
There are many lessons to be learned from that, but the most important one is this: The Falcons should get out of the habit of half measures at quarterback as quickly as possible. They can’t offer up a shaky stopgap starter or try to mold a young quarterback with flaws on an accelerated timeline, because we’ve seen those tactics fail in the last couple of seasons. The clear answer is to either get a high-end short-term option and try to win right now with this roster, or draft the next franchise player you believe can be effective soon and stay effective for many years to come.
It’s likely that either solution will be expensive, in terms of dollars, draft capital, or both. That’s okay, because the Falcons can afford to surrender picks and cash in a way they can’t afford to surrender opportunity. The thought was that they might be able to win with Mariota and then win with Ridder/Heinicke, but that’s a pair of squandered years that caused the Falcons to jettison Smith and ran the Falcons’ streak of losing seasons to six years.
That’s especially true because there are options this year. If you didn’t care for chasing Lamar Jackson last year—and the Falcons did not—free agency was not exactly loaded and the quarterback class thinned out quickly beyond the top three selections. This year, you have a similar crop of free agent quarterbacks as you did a year ago minus Jackson but potentially plus Kirk Cousins and (I’m not endorsing this) Ryan Tannehill, a compelling rookie class with a handful of top-tier passes and some really compelling second-tier options, and the possibility that Justin Fields and maybe Kyler Murray could be on the move. There are more options than there were a year ago, in other words, and the Falcons now have seen enough from Ridder to know that entrusting him with the starting job no questions asked in 2024 is an impossibility. There’s no guaranteed success in any of those options, but the chances are better than they would be if the Falcons tried to tell themselves a new coach could unlock Ridder’s potential or that a mid-tier veteran could lift this offense to where it needs to go.
The Falcons made a series of mistakes to get here, but they have the chance to remedy two of the largest ones in a single offseason by getting the right coach and the right quarterback. Regardless of who ends up on the sidelines for this team in 2024, the Falcons need to trot out a major upgrade at quarterback, or they risk losing another year, another group of weary fans, and perhaps their entire front office.