Bradley’s Buzz: Arthur Smith’s plan hasn’t worked, boding ill for Arthur Smith

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith will lead his 6-8 team into Sunday's key home game against the Colts.

Credit: Rusty Jones

Credit: Rusty Jones

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith will lead his 6-8 team into Sunday's key home game against the Colts.

Every draft is a big deal for every NFL team. For the Falcons, the 2023 edition was especially immense. It told us what they believed themselves to be. They might believe otherwise today.

They held the eighth pick in a draft where four quarterbacks were expected to be taken early. Three were. The Falcons stayed at No. 8 and took Bijan Robinson, a pick not without detractors. In the 21st Century, running backs are seen as interchangeable. The Falcons exited the three-day draft with the same number of quarterbacks as when it began – two.

One was Taylor Heinicke, a career backup signed in March as insurance. The other was Desmond Ridder, the 74th pick in 2022 and a starter of four inconsequential NFL games. That the Falcons felt no urge to trade up – or down, or sideways – for the sake of QB options was their way of saying, “We like what we have.” They mightn’t like it so much today.

For the second time in two months, the Falcons have benched Ridder. The first demotion came after he’d been checked for a concussion during a loss in Nashville. Heinicke started the next two games. The Falcons lost both. After a bye, they reinstated Ridder. They won the next two games. They’ve since lost to Tampa Bay and Carolina. The first was a bad loss. The latter stands among this franchise’s worst.

Though the odds are against it, the Falcons could still win the NFC South. It’s remarkable that, in this hour of need, Arthur Smith has chosen a 30-year-old who has made 27 NFL starts – and whose teams are 12-14-1 in those starts – over Ridder, whom the same coach believed to be this team’s quarterback of today and tomorrow.

It’s possible the Falcons could return to Ridder as their starter next season. (These are, we note, the Falcons.) It is not probable. This has the feel of a slamming door.

Had Ridder done anything else on that fateful snap in Charlotte – flung the ball into the stands, ducked out of bounds, fallen on his face – the Falcons win. He threw on the run, across his body, in the rain, into a cluster of defenders. More than just a poor choice, it was an impudent one. Maybe Patrick Mahomes gets away with it. The Desmond Ridders of this world do not.

Credit Smith for no longer trying to defend the indefensible. (Hey, he’d already benched the guy once for ball insecurity.) At the same time, Smith is the reason Ridder was on the field. After whiffing on Deshaun Watson and trading Matt Ryan, Ridder became the Falcons’ succession plan. They bought time with Marcus Mariota and hedged their bet with Heinicke, but the Round 3 pick was the heir apparent.

Loading up on high-profile skill players was only going to work if the Falcons found someone to run Smith’s offense. He’s the head coach. He calls these plays. He picked these players. He picked Ridder. For a second time, he has unpicked Ridder.

The Falcons opened for business in 1966. Only once have they retained a head coach after his first three full seasons were losing seasons. (Norm Van Brocklin’s first season was a partial.) The exception was Dan Henning, whom ownership planned to fire after Year 3 before being talked into a Year 4, which similarly ended in tears.

Arthur Blank fired Jim Mora after a one playoff appearance and one losing season; Mike Smith after four playoff appearances and two losing seasons; Dan Quinn after two playoff appearances, two losing seasons and an 0-5 start in the COVID year. That Blank showed the most patience with Quinn was understandable. Alone among this owner’s hires, DQ took him to the Super Bowl.

The Falcons must win out to keep Smith from presiding over three losing seasons. Over 48 games, his teams have won more than two in a row only once, and that bears an asterisk. They won the final two games of last season and the first two of this. Their quarterback over those four games – Desmond Ridder.

The guess is that the Falcons must make the playoffs for A. Smith to be retained. It’d be one thing if this team was stuck in a stacked division having shown clear progress with a promising young quarterback. The Falcons are in the NFC South, having lost five of seven, having again benched Ridder.

The plan, such as it was, hasn’t worked. When that happens, the man with the plan tends to become the man who’s handed a severance plan.

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