Bradley’s Buzz: The Falcons had to give Desmond Ridder a look

The Falcons played it down the middle. They tried to win. Now they’re looking to tomorrow. By playing it down the middle, the Falcons have, dare we say, played it smart.

Baseball teams – several, including one we know well – have tanked their way to the World Series. The NFL, where a hard salary cap makes for widespread free agency, isn’t like MLB. There are no minor leagues, unless you count the 2022 NFC South. A football team can’t send the draft’s No. 1 pick to the Sally League. The decision on when to commit yourself to a young quarterback is the hardest any NFL franchise faces.

Pittsburgh took Kenny Pickett in Round 1. The Steelers started the season with Mitch Trubisky, once a first-rounder, as their quarterback. They knew it wouldn’t work, but they didn’t want to ask too much too soon. As they were falling to 1-3, they benched Trubisky and turned to Pickett. They lost to Buffalo 38-3 the next week. They bottomed out at 2-6, whereupon they had a bye week. They’re 3-1 since, having just beaten the Falcons.

Fifty-four picks after the Steelers took Pickett, the Falcons drafted Desmond Ridder. He worked three exhibition games, looking neither sorry nor sublime. We haven’t seen him since. The Falcons tapped Marcus Mariota as their starter, which was their intent in landing him from the Raiders two hours after Matt Ryan was dealt to the Colts. Mariota was the No. 2 pick 2015. He’s essentially on a one-year contract. He mightn’t play another down here.

Mariota as a Falcon was the NFL equivalent of those normal folks who dress up on Oscar night and pretend they’re Ben Affleck and his significant Jennifer when the A-listers take a refreshment break. Mariota was a seat-filler. He was the guy who got to act as the Falcons’ quarterback while the Falcons wait on their real quarterback.

It mightn’t be Ridder. He was taken 54 picks after Pickett. In this century, the list of successful NFL quarterbacks drafted in Round 3 begins with Russell Wilson and ends with Nick Foles. The Falcons landed Ridder not as the answer but as a possibility. There’s a chance they’ll take another quarterback in Round 1 come April. There’s a chance Ridder’s audition lasts four games.

There’s also a chance he’s the guy. The Falcons couldn’t let this season end without taking a look-see, not after they lost four of five and saw their playoff chances shrink to 2.6%, per ESPN’s football power index. Had the Falcons still been leading the world’s worst division, they couldn’t have changed quarterbacks. For a team that needs to be in full-blown transition, 5-8 works just fine.

“There’s no situation,” coach Arthur Smith said last month when asked about quarterbacks. “There has never been a situation.” To be fair, Smith wasn’t under oath.

Also to be fair, the Falcons were then 4-6 with three apparently winnable games awaiting. (They’d just lost to Carolina, a most winnable game.) October ended with the Falcons in first place. They weren’t ready to pull the plug. After losing at home to the 4-7 Steelers and with two weeks until they play again, they became ready.

In the grand scheme, the 2022 Falcons have been lucky. They weren’t bad enough to render the entire season unwatchable – seeing them find ways to keep games close has been fascinating, at least to yours truly – but they’re not so good they can be accused of conceding with the playoffs in sight.

But who knows? Given the state of this division, having a quarterback who can complete a 20-yard pass might lift the Falcons above Tampa Bay, which has the greatest QB ever but is lucky to be 6-6.

Maybe the rookie Ridder will start a playoff game come January, but that’s not why the Falcons are changing quarterbacks. They’re changing quarterbacks because they need a quarterback. If he’s on their roster, they’re set. If not, that becomes Job 1. That’s the situation. It has always been the situation.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and curated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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