It’s not yet Desmond Ridder’s time for Falcons

Some Falcons supporters are hoping the team will make a change at quarterback, from Marcus Mariota to Desmond Ridder. Those calls predictably grew when Mariota struggled against the Bengals on Sunday. That noise will grow louder after two other teams that are in the same position as the Falcons – trying to get hot and make a run to the playoffs – switched quarterbacks.

The Colts benched Matt Ryan for Sam Ehlinger, the 10th quarterback selected in the 2021 NFL draft and No. 3 on Indy’s depth chart only three weeks ago. The move reportedly was made by team owner Jim Irsay, who days earlier credited Ryan for his team’s turnaround from winless to 3-1. Jerry Glanville’s famous quote about the NFL standing for Not For Long was directed at a rookie official, but it’s also true for players with Ryan’s stature.

New England quarterback Mac Jones, successor to Tom Brady, was bad against the Bears on Monday night before Bill Belichick switched to Bailey Zappe. The move may or may not have been related to Jones coming back from injury. Belichick said he planned to play both QBs. But he also said a two-QB rotation won’t be the norm and wouldn’t commit to a starter, which means Jones might stay on the bench.

For some Falcons fans, Mariota’s poor performance at Cincinnati was the latest signal that Ridder’s time should be now. Never mind that Mariota played his best game in years a week earlier, and the Falcons (3-4) are tied for first in the NFC South with 10 games to go. Forget that every team in the NFL passed over Ridder at least once. In the estimation of some Falcons supporters, Ridder couldn’t possibly be worse than Mariota, and he might end up being the better option.

Well, I’m here to tell them that Ridder not only could be worse than Mariota, he surely would be worse. From the few glimpses we got of Ridder in exhibition games, he’s a less-experienced version of Mariota: good with his legs, lacking in passing accuracy. Mariota isn’t good enough to elevate the Falcons beyond their talent level. Ridder is even less equipped to do that. If at all possible, he shouldn’t start for the Falcons until there are better players around him.

Of course, the reality that the Falcons have a better chance of winning with Mariota hardly is the point for fans on Team Tank. They want the Falcons to change QBs now so the team can see if Ridder has what it takes to be the long-term answer. For those fans, losing games with Ridder is OK because the Falcons aren’t going anywhere, anyway.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The members of Team Tank have a more compelling case than those who believe the Falcons are better off with Ridder as the starter. But I believe the Falcons should do everything possible to win games. That’s not because of some antiquated ideas about the integrity of the game. Rather, I see it as the obligation of professional entertainers to put on the best show they can.

Anyway, circumstances have intervened to make Team Tank’s argument moot. The Falcons have a real chance of making the playoffs.

The Falcons will play four games over the next six weeks at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they’re 2-1, with the defeat by one point. The Falcons have seven games left against teams ranked in the bottom 10 by the Football Outsider efficiency metric (adjusted by situation and opponent). FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model gives the Falcons a 32% chance of winning the South, second highest in the South behind the Bucs (61%). That forecast is heavily influenced by quarterback play, which means it probably assumes Brady eventually will perform like, well, Brady.

But he’s been mortal so far. The Bucs rank tied for 26th in points scored. The Falcons rank 12th in points, and Mariota’s Total Quarterback Rating is best in the South. Carolina is starting P.J. Walker against the Falcons on Sunday. Jameis Winston’s back is hurting, so the Saints reportedly are sticking with Andy Dalton, who is Mariota without the mobility.

No doubt, Mariota had a bad game in the 35-17 loss at the Bengals. Related: The Falcons had bad down-and-distance situations all day. That’s a tough spot for a team that isn’t built to throw long often. Maybe you didn’t like Falcons coach Arthur Smith’s decision to stick with Mariota with the Falcons down 35-17 late in the third quarter. That’s fair. But consider whether it would be good for Ridder to make his debut in a game where Cincinnati’s capable pass rushers were free to ignore the run and go after him.

The Falcons should start Mariota until he’s no longer the best option. Beyond the particulars of Mariota versus Ridder, look at the big picture of NFL quarterbacks. Good ones are very hard to find. Mariota’s issues with ball security and passing accuracy mean he’s no better than second tier among NFL quarterbacks. But there are times when Mariota’s ability to make plays out of nothing is the only thing the Falcons have going on offense.

Mariota still is a credible starting quarterback. After 14 years of stability at quarterback, the Falcons have joined the long list of franchises getting by with a transitory QB. Before the season, SB Nation’s James Dator noted that only 10 teams were set to start the same quarterback as they did in 2019. Among the 22 QBs who departed their teams, 21 were starters on new teams to begin this season.

It’s down to 20 after Ryan’s benching, not including starters who are injured or suspended. Apparently, plenty of people believe the Falcons will be the next team to make a quarterback change.

At Sportsbetting.ag, Mariota has the second-shortest odds of being the next NFL quarterback benched for non-injury reasons, behind Jared Goff (Lions). Those aren’t some of the many made-up odds that are thrown around. It’s a real betting market and, as of Tuesday afternoon, Goff’s odds were down from 3-1 to 2 ½-1, while Mariota’s odds went up a bit from 4-1.

I would bet against Mariota being the next QB benched. That would be a knee-jerk reaction by Smith. He’s proved to be calculating with his decisions in 24 games as Falcons coach. Smith is in Year 2 of trying to build a winning program. He would risk his credibility with players if he benched Mariota with the Falcons in the playoff hunt and started Ridder before he’s ready.

The Falcons should ride Mariota so long as he gives them the best chance to win.