ATLANTA — The Falcons have scored six and seven points in their last two games. The Braves have scored more than seven runs in 41 games this season. I’m not sure if this suggests Desmond Ridder’s relative football “WAR” merely is something to be desired or that the Falcons should consider luring Ronald Acuña Jr. to play quarterback, but one thing seems certain: Something has to change with Atlanta’s NFL team.
Arthur Smith acknowledges, “If you thought something wasn’t going to work and there’s no signs of hope, at any position, you have to make a change.”
Ridder will get another start this week. Why? Because his head coach hasn’t lost hope. Well, that’s one.
I’m not ready to take the leap and say backup Taylor Heinicke should start the rest of the season or even against the Texans. But the leash on Ridder has to be short. Really short. Like maybe the first half this Sunday and go from there. An average team can’t afford to keep losing winnable games in a season where it must show significant progress to validate the rebuild.
I understand Ridder’s eight career starts aren’t much of a resume. But Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot were clear about their intent on how they were going to fix this team over the past three offseasons. They weren’t going to spend a first-round draft pick (and first-round money) on a quarterback unless they were fully sold on a prospect’s talent (they weren’t). They also weren’t going to spiral deeper into salary cap hell by paying for a quarterback in free agency or trade (see: Lamar Jackson) because they felt they needed to fix the rest of the roster first.
That strategy made sense on many levels. But here’s the problem. Nothing works unless the quarterback can play.
He doesn’t have to be a star. He doesn’t even have to be one of the 15 best starters in the league. But he has to be able to play. He has to be able to make throws to win a game. He can’t throw away games, like what we saw Sunday in London when Ridder threw interceptions (including a pick six) on consecutive plays and overthrew a wide-open Mack Hollins for a would-be touchdown.
It was 17-0 in the second quarter, and the game was over.
The Falcons have a great running back (Bijan Robinson). They have a competent defense (notwithstanding familiar pass rush problems and some breakdowns in the last two weeks). In a weak NFC South, they can make the playoffs with even just a competent Ridder, and to this point he hasn’t been that. If he can’t be that, Smith’s and Fontenot’s plan failed.
Maybe on some level they wouldn’t be surprised. They’re paying backup Taylor Heinicke more than $7 million in salary and bonuses this season. He’s the second-highest paid No. 2 quarterback in the NFL, behind only Jacoby Brissett ($8 million). A team isn’t forking out that much cash for a backup unless there’s some level of uncertainty in the starter.
Throw out Ridder’s four starts at the end of last season. Backup snaps in the 2022 training camp and watching the remnants of Marcus Mariota butcher the position for 13 games isn’t going to help much in the player development department. Just examine the numbers from Ridder’s four starts this season: three touchdown passes, three interceptions, two fumbles, 16 sacks (many related to slow decision-making), 6.25 yards per attempt (26th overall), 77.9 efficiency rating (28th) and 29.2 QBR (32nd).
There’s more. Pop two Advil. Read on.
The Falcons rank dead last in passing. They are 24th in total offense and 25th in scoring despite having a running back (Bijan Robinson) averaging 6.0 yards per carry. They’ve scored just one touchdown in the last two games. They have six touchdowns in the last four games, despite spending first-round picks on Kyle Pitts and Drake London and having a head coach who was considered one of the league’s premier play callers.
Smith turned Ryan Tannehill into a Pro Bowler. That’s water-into-wine magic for an offensive coordinator.
It’s not surprising Smith is sticking with Ridder for now. There are no financial pressures to make that move — Ridder actually makes a fraction of Heinicke’s salary on his rookie deal. The Falcons are a 2-2 early in a 17-game season. The situation doesn’t scream, “Pull the chute.” Ridder’s play in the second half against the Jaguars also far exceeded his miserable first half, so there’s some lingering trace of “hope.”
But the last two performances against the Lions and Jaguars were dreadful. Both games were winnable, especially Sunday’s, and this is a relative must-win season. The organization spent millions in free agency fixing the defense and it may never have an easier path to winning the South. Smith and Fontenot also work for an owner, Arthur Blank, who would not take missing the playoffs for a sixth straight season well. They won seven games each of the last two seasons with far lesser rosters. That’s why the Ridder experiment can’t go on much longer.
One game. Maybe one half.
Smith is good about anticipating what the questions will be in press conferences. Almost every question during Monday’s 26-minute access was about Ridder or the offense and he responded free of anger or sarcasm.
He said in dealing with a young quarterback, “There’s a fine line between always jerking the wheel and making a guy more hesitant, and you have to make the best decision for your team moving forward. If you think the biggest issue is making a change, then that’s what you have to do. Nobody is going to do the same thing over and over — that’s one of the definitions of insanity. You don’t want to be stubborn.”
As for what would tell him it’s time for a change, he said, “You have a quarterback you drafted in the third round. He didn’t have the fantastical hype coming in. We invested in certain (other positions). You’re eight games into it. There’s no perfect answer. But if you thought something wasn’t going to work and there’s no signs of hope, at any position, you have to make a change.
“Adversity will tell you everything about people, in any industry. That’s what gives you hope.”
Maybe this would go better if Ridder pretends the start of the game is the fourth quarter. His quarterback efficiency rating by quarters: 57.2 (first), 76.5 (second), 69.4 (third), 97.1 (fourth). He’s also clearly better at home (4-0) than on the road (0-4), and never lost a home game in college (26-0).
Then again, this is about more than the venue. He’s not reading coverages well. He’s forcing the ball into spots he shouldn’t. He’s missing open targets. He’s responding slowly in a league where everything and everyone moves so much faster than in college. He needs to be so much better, and the Falcons can’t give him that much longer to figure it out.
(Top photo of Desmond Ridder being tackled by the Jaguars’ Travon Walker: Bradley Collyer / PA Images via Getty Images)