The Falcons entered the 2021 season with a new coach. They went 7-10. They entered 2022 with a new quarterback. They went 7-10. In Year 1 under Arthur Smith, all their victories came by one score. In Year 1 after Matt Ryan, eight losses were by one score. They’d gone from being luckier than good to better than their record. That constituted progress.
Last year’s almost-good Falcons could be the precursor to something far better They lost eight one-score games because Marcus Mariota, their place-holder quarterback, couldn’t win them at the end. With four games remaining, Mariota gave way to Desmond Ridder, who didn’t quite dazzle but – more important – didn’t stink.
The Falcons pledged their allegiance to Ridder by staying put in April’s draft. He’s so ensconced as the Falcons’ No. 1 that he was afforded a No. 1′s perk – he didn’t play in their first exhibition. Come Friday night, he’ll start against the Bengals. It should be his only preseason appearance, teams caring next to nothing about the final preseason game.
Ryan Tannehill has been a starting quarterback in all 10 of his NFL seasons. In only one has he made the Pro Bowl. That came with Tennessee in 2019, having supplanted Mariota – small world – after five games. Smith was the Titans’ offensive coordinator. That team reached the AFC title game. It had a 1,500-yard rusher (Derrick Henry), a 1,000-yard receiver (A.J. Brown) and the league’s top-rated passer (Tannehill, believe it or not).
Those Titans are surely the template for Smith’s Falcons. Give a competent quarterback enough help at the skill positions and enough oomph up front – never forget the O-line, or that Smith was himself an O-lineman – and you’ll move the ball and score points. Last I checked, that’s the idea.
The Falcons’ skill folks: Bijan Robinson, Round 1 draftee; Kyle Pitts, Round 1 draftee; Drake London, Round 1 draftee, plus Tyler Allgeier, 1,000-yard rookie. An OC can have a ton of fun calling plays for such guys. No longer an OC, Smith still calls plays.
Key question: What if Ridder isn’t even game-manager-good? (For the record, Miami took Tannehill with the eighth overall pick in 2012. Also for the record, Tannehill started at Texas A&M ahead of Johnny Manziel.) The only way to know is, borrowing a baseball-ism, by running him out there. Taylor Heinicke isn’t a bad fallback, but the Falcons aren’t building around fallbacks.
The Falcons’ embrace of Ridder seems their way of saying, “We don’t need a franchise quarterback,” but no NFL franchise can win without, at the absolute least, a competent QB. Ridder hasn’t been fast-tracked in the way of Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow, but he’s a Round 3 pick who started as a rookie and was handed the reins in Year 2. There’s no way to soft-pedal it: The Falcons see Ridder as Their Guy.
If he is That Guy, he’ll have a trickle-up effect. A team just paroled from Cap Hell would have a starting quarterback under contract for a total of $3.3 million over years. Bryce Young – this year’s top draftee – signed with Carolina for four seasons at $37.9M.
As we’ve just seen, a bargain at the priciest position makes for a deeper roster. The Falcons lavished $130M in guaranteed money on free agent defenders Jessie Bates, David Onyemata, Kaden Elliss, Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree. All are listed as starters on this week’s depth chart.
If Ridder can make the offense work, the 2023 Falcons should make the playoffs. There’s room to move in the NFC, especially in the NFC South. Tom Brady’s gone. Aaron Rodgers is a Jet. ESPN’s football power index rates the Falcons’ schedule the league’s second-softest. They’ll face four games against teams that made the playoffs last season; two will come against the sub-.500 Bucs.
Even their naysayers concede that the Falcons have almost everything except a quarterback. If they in fact have their quarterback, they’re a playoff team.
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