The Falcons will start Heinicke over Ridder. Yeah, I’m surprised

Not saying this is a mistake. In no universe would Desmond Ridder be beyond benching. But there’s risk involved. No coach wants the identity of his starting quarterback to become a week-by-week decision. Naming Taylor Heinicke, a backup most of his professional life, as Sunday’s starter could be the first step toward that slippery slope.

On Wednesday, Falcons coach Arthur Smith told reporters he was “just kind of looking at it in the short term and what gives us the best chance Sunday.” I get that. The head coach who goes three NFL seasons without a winning record is apt to be searching for a job as somebody’s offensive coordinator soon.

This is Smith’s third season here. In 2021, his Falcons were 7-10 behind Matt Ryan. Last season, they were 7-10 mostly behind Marcus Mariota. They’re 4-4 now. They have a schedule that should put them in the playoffs. They have three Round 1 skill players, all chosen during Smith’s tenure. They’ve lost four of the past six games.

Had they won four of six, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Had Ridder not gotten dinged in Sunday’s first half; had Smith not inserted Heinicke over the not-concussed-but-not-quite-right Ridder; had Heinicke not led the Falcons to 20 second-half points … well, the temptation to live in the short term wouldn’t have been so tempting. But here they are, and here’s Ridder, demoted eight games after being anointed QB1.

As Tennessee’s OC, Smith took Ryan Tannehill – a six-year starter with Miami but never a Pro Bowler – and turned him into the league’s top-rated passer. The 2019 Titans won two road playoff games and led the AFC Championship game by 10 before Patrick Mahomes got going. Record-wise, the Titans were even better the next season, again with Smith calling the offense.

Tannehill had some stellar players around him – Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Jonnu Smith – but he’d never been as good as he was under Smith, nor has he been quite the same since Smith left to work in Flowery Branch. For a time, it was possible to view Ridder as Smith’s new Tannehill, a passable QB made better amid a star-spangled cast. It became less possible with Wednesday’s announcement.

On Sunday, Smith said Ridder’s benching “wasn’t performance-related.” On Wednesday, he conceded that the quarterback’s lengthening bench stay isn’t health-related. Ridder will, per his coach, “be available.” He just won’t start.

We can’t say the Falcons were unprepared. In March, they signed Heinicke for $14 million over two seasons. That’s a lot to pay a backup, which was what Heinicke’s previous employers considered him, which is why he was available. Now the backup is the starter. I don’t know this is what the Falcons expected to happen, but it’s happening.

The Falcons’ next two games – against Minnesota, without Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson, and Arizona, which is 1-7 – are eminently winnable. If they win both behind Heinicke, the odds of Ridder starting another game this season aren’t great. Given this schedule, Heinicke might lead the Falcons to the playoffs, which would be good for Arthur Blank’s disposition and Arthur Smith’s job security.

But would it – sorry, but we must ask – be good for the Falcons over the long haul? Their stated belief in Ridder was why a draft featuring Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis passed without the Falcons landing a quarterback. Maybe an older/wiser Ridder can become the guy in 2024. Maybe Heinicke will outperform his pedigree and, on the high side of 30, turn into Johnny Unitas. Or maybe not.

One thing I know: Having turned away from Ridder so soon, it won’t be easy to turn back. It’s not impossible, but shuffling quarterbacks isn’t any coach’s preferred course. I’m not shocked by Smith’s choice: Ridder had begun to regress. I am, however, surprised.