Bradley’s Buzz: Why Falcons will stick with Marcus Mariota at QB ... for now

The Washington Post ran a story this week under the headline: “The Atlanta Falcons are sticking with Marcus Mariota. But why?”

The Post’s Jason La Canfora quoted an unnamed NFL GM thusly: “I don’t get it. What do you gain by going from Matt Ryan to Mariota to run an offense where you aren’t really throwing the football, anyway? I would think they go to (rookie Desmond) Ridder soon. I can’t figure out what they’re waiting for.”

This unnamed Post source – should we dub him Deep Threat? – appears to believe the transition from Ryan to Mariota was planned. It wasn’t. Things happened. Complications ensued. Over 10 March days, the Falcons’ present and future changed.

On March 11, a Houston grand jury declined to bring charges against Deshaun Watson for sexual harassment/assault. This essentially freed teams to pursue a 27-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback who wanted no more of the Texans. Such quarterbacks are rarely available. The Falcons knew this quarterback well.

Watson is from Gainesville. Before winning a national championship at Clemson, he was a Falcons’ ball boy. On March 16, the Falcons’ brass, owner Arthur Blank included, met with Watson in Flowery Branch. The Saints, Panthers and Browns also made overtures. Three of the four NFC South teams were interested, which tells us much about the NFC South.

For some of the next 48 hours, the Falcons believed he was leaning their way. On March 18, Watson agreed to be traded to the Browns. Only later would the NFL get involved, suspending Watson for 11 games. His Cleveland debut will come against Houston – fancy that – on Dec. 4.

Ryan, who’d started every game save three over the past 14 seasons, took the Falcons’ pursuit of Watson the way most incumbents would. He thought, “If they wanted him, they don’t need me.” He found a team willing to part with a Round 3 pick for his services. On March 21, he was traded to the Colts.

News that Ryan was outbound was two hours old when Marcus Mariota was announced as his successor. Nobody planned it. It just happened. Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, had been benched by the Titans and all but forgotten as a Raider. Falcons coach Arthur Smith was a Tennessee assistant the year of Mariota’s demotion. Their reunion made sense, sort of.

Smith likes running teams. Mariota runs better than he throws. Really, though, fit was a lesser concern. With only Feleipe Franks listed on the Falcons’ roster as a quarterback, urgency held sway. Somebody had to take snaps in minicamp. Note: Franks is also listed as a tight end.

Mariota has been OK – not great, not awful. Were they in the NFC East, the 4-6 Falcons would be in last place. In the NFC South, they’re a game out of first. To answer the unnamed GM’s question: That’s why they’re waiting. According to ESPN’s football power index, they have a 14.6% chance of winning the division – not great, but not zero. Their remaining schedule is among the NFL’s softest.

The Falcons know they’re not a great team. They also know they’ve got a chance – in this division, with this schedule – to make the playoffs. That’d be a big thing for Smith, and also for Blank. The latter Arthur has owned this team since 2002. Over his first 11 years of stewardship, his Falcons made the playoffs six times. Over the past nine, they’ve made it twice, most recently in 2017. Nobody’s getting any younger – not you, not me, not Blank.

Ridder’s drafting was a nod to the future. It wasn’t a full-blown commitment. He arrived in Round 3, the 74th overall pick. He’s not Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence. Then again, Tom Brady was the 199th pick in 2000. (Then again, Brady might never have started for the Patriots had Mo Lewis not slammed into Drew Bledsoe.)

Ridder is someone to give a look when the Falcons no longer have a playoff shot. If they lose Sunday to the Bears to fall to 4-7, that time might be at hand. It isn’t yet. If you’re 5-6 and your next three games are against the Commanders, Steelers and Saints – combined record: 11-18 – you can table the audition a bit longer.

As much as we on the periphery would like to see Ridder, we don’t have to face these players every workday. These guys have maximized modest assets. They’ve had a chance in nine of their 10 games. With Mariota, they know they can compete. With a rookie, everything is unknowable. Maybe Ridder is Dan Marino. Maybe he’s Tony Graziani.

To bench Mariota now – even coming off a terrible night in Charlotte – would be to punt on the season. The only quarterback drafted ahead of Ridder was Kenny Pickett. The Steelers waited until they were 1-3 to make him their starter. His first start was against Buffalo. His team lost 38-3. He has been better since, but the Steelers have no hope of making the playoffs. They’re in the AFC.

Might the Falcons have been better off picking Pickett? He has completed 66.7% of his passes; Mariota has completed 61.9%. Pickett also has thrown more interceptions in six games than Mariota has in 10.

There’s a chance this season will end without Ridder taking a snap. With their schedule, the Falcons could hang around .500 until Christmas. (They play at Baltimore on Dec. 24.) Having spent 10 games trying to win, they’re caught in the middle. In the grand scheme, they’d be better off headed into the 2023 draft with a clear idea of Ridder’s capability. But that’s the point.

This wasn’t a grand scheme. This was happenstance.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and collated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Bradley’s Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’d be obliged if you’d give it a try.

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