Bradley’s Buzz: Picking the wrong QB made Arthur Smith the wrong coach

Falcons Owner Arthur Blank watches the fans as the Falcons play the last minute of the game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, November 5, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Falcons lost 31-28.

Miguel Martinz/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons Owner Arthur Blank watches the fans as the Falcons play the last minute of the game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, November 5, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Falcons lost 31-28. Miguel Martinz/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Thanking Arthur Smith for his services not eight hours after the Falcons’ season ended tells us Arthur Blank knew what needed to happen before Sunday’s game kicked off. Smith went 7-10 with Matt Ryan at quarterback, then 7-10 with a goodly dose of Marcus Mariota. This season ended 7-10.

Say this for A. Smith, former coach: He was consistent.

This season, though, was different. This was Smith’s first season with a quarterback of his choosing. (Mariota arrived because Ryan forced a trade after the Falcons’ unavailing run at Deshaun Watson.) A month later, Smith’s Falcons drafted Desmond Ridder. Given a year to evaluate, Smith decided this was a QB with whom he could win. Decisions have consequences.

Pressed (again) into service Sunday because the promoted backup Taylor Heinicke couldn’t go, Ridder had a terrific first half. He completed 14 of 16 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating through two quarters was 158.3, the highest possible. Still, this glittering half ended with a show of no-confidence by the Falcons’ coach.

Facing third-and-2 at the Saints’ 12 inside the final 15 seconds with a timeout remaining, Smith chose to let the clock run to 0:03 and have Younghoe Koo kick a tying field goal. Had the timeout been taken at 0:12, the Falcons could have taken a shot at a go-ahead touchdown before summoning Koo. That they didn’t was a reflection on the QB with the perfect passer rating.

Smith took the field goal because he was afraid Ridder, even at his best, might do something wrong and leave the Falcons with nothing. To be fair, Ridder threw 12 INTs on the season, fewer than Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence and Patrick Mahomes. To be frank, the Falcons’ offense wasn’t good enough to scheme around their quarterback.

We’ll remember this season not for the things Ridder did well but for the times he appeared not to know what he was doing. His turnovers changed games. His interception in Charlotte wound up costing Smith his job – a job Smith sought to save by turning to Heinicke a second time. In the end, though, the coach was left with Ridder. Funny how things work.

The Falcons tied Sunday’s game at 17. That field goal marked their final points under Smith. The inevitable Ridder interception arrived three plays into the second half. The third quarter ended with a quarterback who threw only eight incompletions this day missing Bijan Robinson on fourth-and-goal. Working for CBS, Ryan graded Ridder’s footwork on the pass a fundamental fail.

Ridder muffed a center snap in the fourth quarter. The Saints won by 31 points, not that it mattered. Tampa Bay’s halting victory in Charlotte eliminated the Falcons, who on the morning of Dec. 10 led the NFC South by a game and were 3-0 against division brethren. They finished 1-4, somehow losing to all three NFC Southerners.

This was the season the Falcons awaited. Freed from cap hell, they’d splurged in free agency. They’d picked another skill player in Round 1. They’d allowed Ridder to get his feet wet with four post-Mariota starts at the shank of last season. And they faced, we say once more, a bunny schedule.

The result? Yet again, 7-10. Smith’s gifted offense finished 17th in yards. His team finished 26th in points. Blank fired Smith because Smith left Blank unconvinced that a fourth year of this coach would yield anything better.

Where now? Jim Harbaugh? Eric Bieniemy? Kliff Kingsbury? Joe Brady? Deion Sanders? Bill Belichick? More to the point, would this organization know the right guy if it stumbled over him?

Blank has hired five head coaches. Mike Smith had five consecutive winning seasons; Dan Quinn took the Falcons to the Super Bowl. Those were successes, though their tenures didn’t end well. (In the NFL, not many do.) Bobby Petrino was gone after 13 games. Jim Mora and A. Smith each lasted three seasons.

As often happens, the verbiage of the Falcons’ press release made you go, “What?” From the final paragraph: “(The search) will be led by Blank and (Rich) McKay, with input from Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, and several other appropriate members of Blank’s Atlanta Falcons and AMB Sports and Entertainment organizations.”

So McKay – the man who championed Petrino – is not only still around but still gets a say? So Fontenot, who assembled the NFC South’s most talented roster, gets mentioned only as having “input”? So the GM is listed below McKay and just ahead of “other appropriate” Blank employees, some of whom mightn’t actually work for the Falcons?

Thus were we reminded that, even while making a reasonable decision regarding Smith, these remain the Falcons. On Feb. 5, 2017, they led the Super Bowl 28-3. They lost that night. They’ve had one winning season since.

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