Falcons paying price for not investing more in quarterback

Atlanta Falcons starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) watches quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) during warmups before an NFL football game In Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023 between the Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Atlanta Falcons starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) watches quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) during warmups before an NFL football game In Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023 between the Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Everybody knows why Falcons coach Arthur Smith is having a hard time settling on a starting quarterback. He’s trying to pick the least bad option. The “variables” that Smith says go into making the decision won’t look any better no matter how many times he goes over them.

Desmond Ridder has more potential for growth, but he’s already been benched once because he couldn’t take care of the ball. Taylor Heinicke is a good backup, which isn’t good enough now that the Falcons have a middling rushing offense. It’s possible the Falcons will make the playoffs with either Ridder or Heinicke at quarterback. The NFC South is bad (again) and the remaining schedule is easy.

But does anyone really think the Falcons could win a playoff game against the NFC’s top wild card team? They reached their bye week with a 4-6 record against the league’s easiest schedule. Does it look like the QB plan has Falcons building up to being a Super Bowl contender? I’m told that’s still the ultimate goal for NFL teams.

It’s hard to tell if Falcons decision-makers believe that, based on how they’ve have handled the game’s most important position.

The Falcons used a third-round pick to select Ridder in 2022 and splurged on skill players near the top of the draft. They finally had salary-cap space last offseason and passed on the extraordinary chance to acquire Lamar Jackson and also didn’t sign a proven starter in free agency. The result is that the Falcons have a bad offense that features good, young skill players and no quarterback to maximize them.

There are times when play-caller Smith talks about Bijan Robinson, Kyle Pitts and Drake London as if they are decoys who allow role players to shine. Smith usually dismisses such critiques as fantasy football. OK, but the real-world outcome is the Falcons aren’t getting much production from play-makers drafted in the top 10 while the offense ranks 24th in points and 27th in DVOA (efficiency on every play, adjusted for opponent and situation).

In 2022, the Falcons were 17th in points and eighth in offensive DVOA. Smith did good work building an effective offense centered on a power running identity and the veteran savvy of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Now Smith’s offense is bad because the Falcons are just OK at running the ball and terrible at throwing it.

Ridder isn’t the only reason for latter, but he’s at the top of a long list. He ranks 25th in QBR among starters and 35th in Expected Points Added per drop back. Ridder has thrown as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns and lost three fumbles in the red zone against the Bucs.

Ridder was better while playing in relief of Heinicke (hamstring) the second half at Arizona on Sunday. But Ridder stumbled on an unsuccessful fourth-down QB sneak when the Falcons were within scoring range. There’s always too much bad along with the good with Ridder.

Smith made things easier for Ridder early in the season by focusing on quick, rhythm throws. That approach fizzled once defenders started anticipating those plays. The Falcons’ issues passing have been compounded by their inability to rush efficiently on early downs. That forced Ridder into more throws with unfavorable down-and-distance. Inconsistent pass blocking in those situations made things harder (the Falcons constructed a line that’s much better on runs).

It’s a lot for the Falcons to ask Ridder to be an effective starter in his second season or, really, ever. AJC colleague Ken Sugiura noted before the season that that Dak Prescott (Cowboys) is an outlier among QBs drafted in the third round or later from 2013 on. Prescott is the only one of those 61 players to start 10 or more regular-season games plus a playoff game.

With Ridder, the Falcons were hoping to hit on a late-round QB like three teams did in the 2012 draft. But when Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles got their chances they all showed a lot more ability than Ridder is now. Ridder can get better, of course, but the early returns aren’t good for his chances of beating the long odds.

The Falcons could have made quarterback the strength of their team. They had enough salary-cap space to sign away Jackson from the Ravens last year. Quarterbacks of his caliber almost never become available.

Arthur Blank said the Falcons passed on signing Jackson because of injury risk and the salary-cap hit. This is the owner who kept showering Matt Ryan with guaranteed money while he was taking a beating behind patchwork lines in the twilight of his career. There was less risk in acquiring Jackson, who is still only 26-years old and better than Ryan was at his peak.

The financial impact was the better argument against singing Jackson, though Blank wrongly asserted that his contract would eat 25% of the cap. Jackson’s deal is taking up 9% of Baltimore’s cap this season. It’s true that signing Jackson would have left the Falcons less money to build depth. They used much of their 2023 cap space to shore up the defense.

I advocated for the Falcons to do that after the 2021 season. That was before I knew that a generational quarterback would become available. The Falcons should have done the hardest part first, then worry about the rest later.

And about that Falcons defense: it’s better, but not good. The Falcons rank 18th in scoring defense but just 31st in defensive DVOA. That metric has lagged points allowed all season and, sure enough, the cracks have started to show the past three weeks. That’s put even more pressure on an offense that’s produced nearly as many turnovers (16) as touchdowns (18).

The Falcons have faced just three opponents who are good defensively (Jacksonville Minnesota, and Tampa Bay) and four who are bad (Arizona, Washington, Carolina and Green Bay). The Falcons might be an average offense with better quarterback play. Ridder has performed well below that bar. Henicke is insurance, not the answer.

As Smith tries to decide which of his limited QBs to ride for the rest of the season, he should know that it’s a self-inflicted problem for the Falcons.