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2023 Falcons roster review: The quarterback fiasco

On the decisions that sunk a season, and where the Falcons go from here.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons elected to follow their own course this past season. Flush with free agent cash at last and wrapping up a third straight draft with a selection in the top ten, the Falcons elected to pour their resources into building up a roster around a quarterback rather than investing in a quarterback. They did so with the hope—and the confidence, judging by their moves and words—but Desmond Ridder would be able to be at least a capable steward for the offense. If not, they had former Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke there to fill in.

It was a plan with risk, and some fans were more dour about that plan than others, very much including here at The Falcoholic. What I think nobody with the Falcons—and certainly very few fans—expected was that it wouldn’t just not be a success, but an abject failure, one that played a major role in derailing the 2023 season. Instead of an improving young player or at least a solid stopgap, the Falcons got one of the most turnover-prone players in the NFL in Ridder, and those weeks where Heinicke relieved him, the veteran was scarcely better. The result was piles of interceptions and fumbles, a team left scrambling to work around those mistakes, and a third straight 7-10 season that got Arthur Smith fired. It’s not an exaggeration to call the quarterback situation a fiasco in 2023 after it was pretty clear to a fiasco throughout much of 2022; this time, that had huge consequences across the organization.

Why did it go so wrong? What’s next? Let’s break it down in our opening salvo in the 2023 Falcons roster review series.

Key players

QB Desmond Ridder

I’m not going to pretend that I saw Ridder’s collapse coming. At the end of 2022, he was lucky to get away with a couple of non-turnovers, but was perhaps too careful at points. I thought Ridder had the tools to be a good quarterback and fretted more about how the lack of standout accuracy and pocket presence might hurt him than whether he might very nearly lead the NFL in turnovers. That thought did not cross my mind.

Yet that’s what happened. Ridder never ironed out the issues that plagued him from Week 1, where he would miss open receivers, lock on to one that was not open and throw a risky ball, and take hits that led to fumbles. For a player the Falcons appeared to believe in heading into the year and one they thought they could coach up, Ridder only saw progress in fits and starts, mixing in the occasional electric throw with a lot of mistakes. The Falcons tried to bench him and get him right but went back to him after the bye week after Taylor Heinicke was merely so-so and hurt his ankle, and Ridder quickly returned to his old ways. He was permanently benched toward the end of the season, but with Heinicke hurt again, played in the Week 18 blowout loss to the Saints.

Ridder finished the season with 17 total touchdowns and 24 total turnovers in 15 games and 13 starters; that sky-high turnover total lost the Falcons game and made him into a liability. The Falcons made a big bet that Ridder would at least be good enough to not drag an offense studded with playmakers down with him; instead, he actually was that kind of liability thanks to his turnovers and the offense fell short of expectations in other ways, setting up the implosion we all had to endure last year.

It’s possible there’s still a brighter future in this league for Ridder if he can work on his feel for pressure, accuracy, and above all decision-making, but it’ll be a minor miracle if he gets a shot to start again without injuries clearing the way for him. While I don’t think the Falcons did a tremendous job of setting him up for success this year, what with the lack of a dedicated quarterbacks coach and some of their offensive struggles, Ridder really has no one to blame but himself for the way 2023 turned out.

QB Taylor Heinicke

Maybe the season could have been salvaged if Heinicke had been able to ride to the rescue. Instead, the Falcons showed another layer of poor judgement for their quarterback situation by bringing in the veteran.

His work in Washington suggested that Heinicke would have ups and downs but be a passable passer and capable enough runner if he got in, serving as a fallback option for Ridder if he faltered. The problem was that when Heinicke actually got into games, we only saw brief flashes of the former along with stretches of the latter, with Heinicke also looking tepid throwing the ball and committing his fair share of boneheaded turnovers. That’s why the Falcons tried to go back to Ridder once, and it underscores the degree to which the Falcons boasted confidence about their quarterback position that didn’t prove to be warranted.

Heinicke has shown enough in the past that he’ll likely land another backup job in 2024, but like Ridder, he’s unlikely to start again unless someone in front of him is injured.

QB Logan Woodside

The break-in-case-of-emergency option, Woodside got in at the very end of the final game oef the season and looked pretty overmatched, as you’d expect from a third string quarterback pressed into action. He’ll likely follow Arthur Smith to his next stop,

Overall performance: Rough

The above probably painted the picture, but this year was so bad at the quarterback position that it may have derailed the careers of both players who got starts in 2023 and helped get the head coach fired. It would be difficult to call it anything but a particularly intense tire fire.

The sheer ineptitude of the quarterbacking had a downstream impact on all the receiving options and offensive linemen on the roster, not to mention the team’s ground game, and that in turn makes figuring out whether Van Jefferson or Mack Hollins were lousy themselves this year or if they were partially victimized by poor quarterback play. I don’t think Arthur Smith did himself any favors with his play calling far too often last year, especially when he tried cute plays with very little chance of working, but his commitment to Ridder and Heinicke also left him with very little chance of pulling together a successful offense. I thought the Bears and Saints games saw him calling a better game overall, but by that point the awful Carolina gameplan and miserable quarterback play had essentially killed his chances of returning to Atlanta, as we know now.

It’s difficult not to wonder what might have been if Ridder had more playing time in 2022, a quality quarterbacks coach to work on ironing out his issues, and perhaps a legitimate #2 receiver, but it’s also difficult to convince yourself that anything would have been enough to coax a high level year out of Ridder. Given how tight the margins were in the woeful NFC South, the Falcons might still have made the playoffs, and we’d be living in a very different world if they did.

Outlook: Grim

The Atlanta Falcons have to go get a new starting quarterback. The most positive thing you can say about this year is that it stripped any illusions the franchise might have had about trying to take the road less traveled generally and Ridder as a franchise quarterback specifically. They’ll go get a high-end starter for their next coach—especially if that’s Bill Belichick—and they know they have to.

For the quarterbacks on the roster, though, the outlook is grim. Heinicke is likely to be cut to free up considerable cap space, Woodside is likely headed elsewhere, and Ridder is not guaranteed to return to the team after that woeful 2023, even if I still think he winds up being an affordable backup for the team’s next starter. It’s also grim because there’s no such thing as an easy road to a good quarterback, meaning the Falcons have to hope someone falls in the draft, trade up in the draft, or pony up big time for a free agent signing or trade. Expect to hear the names Justin Fields and Kirk Cousins a lot between now and the end of March.

We’ve talked about the way the team painted itself into this corner by having so much faith in Ridder and not opening up a genuine competition by signing a more compelling second option than Heinicke, but it bears repeating that while the approach itself was one the Falcons clearly felt was worth taking, the level of confidence the franchise had that it would work out seemed risky at the time and appears beyond foolish in hindsight. After two years of quarterback purgatory, the only sure thing is that the Falcons can’t go down this road again in 2024 and beyond, necessitating the kind of investment they believed they could skip in 2023.