A quarterback change for the Falcons is a question of when, not if (2023)

Marcus Mariota began the season as the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. He remains the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. Whether he’ll continue to start in the future is less certain, and that’s where a thousand online arguments have been launched and torched in the past few weeks.

The post-Matt Ryan era in Atlanta was always going to be an adjustment, both because fans argued about Ryan constantly and because it was new territory. When you replace a player who spends nearly 15 years holding down a position more or less uninterrupted, and when you have a young drafted quarterback with promise behind the veteran you signed to a short-term deal to replace him, everything the starter does will be scrutinized. That’s certainly been the case thus far, with Mariota becoming one of the focal points of conversation for reasons both good and bad after every game, regardless of outcome.

I’m not going to discourage anyone from doing that—you wouldn’t listen anyway—but I am going to take a moment to note why I think we’re at least a few weeks away from seeing a change at quarterback, and what will lead the team to make that change when they eventually do.

Let’s take a look back, a look at where we are, and a look at where we might be going at the quarterback position.

How we got here

The Falcons had a clear plan as of mid-March. They were keeping Matt Ryan for 2022, drafting a potential successor, and seeing where that got them, with a restructure to Ryan’s deal helping them to free up money to be competitive this season. If Ryan faltered, they might turn to the rookie at some point and perhaps even draft a quarterback in 2023, but everything was lining up for the team to ride out most of 2022 with him as the helm and then likely move him in the coming offseason unless things went brilliantly.

Then the team pivoted to Deshaun Watson, a decision I firmly believe was driven by the owner’s personal connection to Watson and his impatience with losing, and half of that plan went out the window. The team tried to find a landing spot for Ryan while they pursued Watson, and when the deal fell through and Cleveland swooped in to get him, the Falcons went through to move Ryan to Indianapolis. Even though they were still clearly planning to draft a quarterback, they needed someone to handle the short-term starting job that Ryan was originally set to occupy for 2022, and they needed to secure an option quickly after the head-spinning couple of weeks in late March.

That’s how they landed Mariota. The former Titan and Raider signed a two-year deal with an annual average of $9.375 million, indicating the team expected him to slot in as a starter for 2022 and potentially compete to start in 2023, when he’s under contract but has virtually no guaranteed money on his deal. The team set themselves up nicely after the Ryan/Watson situation blew up in their faces to have a player Arthur Smith was familiar with, one with considerable starting experience and a compatible skillset for this offense. Mariota was easy to pencil in as the starter at the time, and that proved to be wise.

The reasons to like Mariota in this offense were myriad. He looked sharper in relief of Derek Carr in Las Vegas than he did as a starter for Tennessee, and Arthur Smith knew him well from their shared time with the Titans even if he was the helm of the offense when Mariota was benched for Ryan Tannehill. His mobility, experience, and reputation as a profoundly decent human being all made him welcome additions to the team and the locker room.

Then the Falcons drafted Ridder in the third round. As Tori McElhaney recounted, the team’s coaching staff and front office put extensive work over the past two years into vetting and scouting the Cincinnati quarterback, with some strong words about how much they liked him for the Falcons.

“We fell in love with the kid,” Jones said. “It was a guy where we walked away (from him) impressed.”

Ridder performed well in game action this summer, but never seriously challenged Mariota for the starting job, and so the veteran came into Week 1 as the unquestioned starter for the Atlanta Falcons. He said all the right things about mentoring the rookie—and by all accounts, has been great to Ridder and a stellar teammate more generally—but there was a friction there nobody with the team was particularly keen to talk about. Unless Mariota was absolutely lights out, fans and analysts were going to speculate about when we’d see Ridder, because the Falcons had drafted him with the hope that he could be their long-term starter.

Where we are now

We’re four weeks into the season, and Mariota is still the starter, which is not a surprise. It’s also something I don’t expect to change in the near-term. Yet the conversation about Mariota has, because of his performance and the fact that Ridder is on this roster, only intensified by the week.

In the first three weeks of the season, Mariota was a bit turnover-prone but also quite solid, challenging defenses deep, making and extending some plays with his legs, and finding great success targeting Drake London in particular. He had fumbled six times, but a couple of those were due to bad snaps by Drew Dalman and miscommunication on a handoff with Tyler Allgeier, and both his numbers and his performances were at least respectable. The wheels came off a bit in Week 4 owing to another fumble (again on a bit of an errant snap), an interception, and a shaky 7/19 completion/attempt ratio not aided by a couple of missed opportunities from his receivers.

Overall, Mariota is 25th in the NFL is yardage, 27th in touchdown passes, 29th in completion percentage, 11th in interceptions, a very impressive fourth in yards per attempt, 27th in passer rating, and 21st in terms of the sacks he’s taken. His intended air yards per attempt are the second-highest in the league, as is his completed air yards per completion, which is a credit to his willingness to attack defenses downfield. Partly because of that and partly because his accuracy comes and goes, his bad throw percentage is the sixth-highest in the league. His overall Pro Football Focus passing grade, if you put any stock into that, is 30th in the NFL, while his mark for fumbling is 40th. That last mark probably doesn’t take Dalman’s snapping into account, but yeah.

The picture that emerges from statistics and watching the games is one of the least consistent and productive passers in the NFL through four games. What Mariota does as a runner, both in terms of actual scrambles (which he hasn’t really gotten to do enough of) and how he escapes pressure to extend plays adds real value that doesn’t show up here, which in turn makes him more valuable to the offense than his pure passing numbers indicate.

The totality of that performance suggests Mariota is what many of us thought he was: A capable enough starter capable of occasionally brilliant play, but one prone to sputtering accuracy and turnovers. Mariota at his best makes enough plays to help the Falcons win games and gives defenses fits because of his mobility, and when he’s rolling his fit with this offense is evident. Mariota at his worst makes plays that stall drives and imperils Atlanta’s chances to win, and as we saw against the Browns, it at least encourages the Falcons to take the ball out of his hands. We’ve gotten a mix of the former and the latter thus far, but certainly the potential for the former is still there, and it’s shown up in tantalizing stretches. That duality ensures there are plenty of fans urging the team and fellow fans to give Mariota, who is still only 28 years old, more run to show what he can really do. There are plenty more, of course, who think he’s shown he should be replaced as quickly as possible.

Of course, what the fans think is very germane on The Falcoholic and on social media, but not all that relevant in Flowery Branch. The Falcons haven’t said a single thing about a quarterback change to this point—the closest Arthur Smith’s gotten is politely deep-sixing the idea of creating packages for Ridder to play—so we don’t have any concrete indications of how seriously they’re considering a change and what a timeline might be.

“That’s not something we’re looking to do right now.” Falcons HC Arthur Smith to @putemupcdukes @MikeBellATL on if he’d consider putting in packages for Desmond Ridder at QB or otherwise right now. #dirtybirds

— DukesandBell929 (@DukesandBell929) October 5, 2022

Where we’re going

This is where things get more uncertain, but here’s what I believe: There’s no immediate change coming at quarterback, but one is very obviously inevitable.

We don’t know where the Falcons will end up finishing, record-wise, in 2022. We do know they’re not yet a finished product, and unless they really hit their stride this year, it will be the fifth straight season without a playoff berth. The team now seems likely to be good enough to finish in the middle of the pack (or better, fingers crossed) this year, and if that holds it would mean the best quarterbacks in this draft class will likely be out of their reach without a move up. With Mariota showing he can run this offense but not consistently elevate it, the Falcons have to see if Ridder shows enough promise to go into 2023 with him as a starter. After all this losing and all this careful roster building, they can’t be caught going into a year where they should be a serious force in the NFC without a compelling solution at quarterback.

What factors will determine whether the team actually does make a change in the coming weeks and months? The first is Ridder’s readiness, and whether the Falcons believe he can step into a starting role without wrecking the offense. He certainly looked the part in preseason, but that was against reserve defenses, so we don’t have any real insight into where the team stands on this. When they think he’s ready to assume control of the offense, he will, assuming the next two items also line up with their plans.

The second is Mariota’s performance. He’s never going to stop sailing at least a couple of passes a game and he’s certainly had his share of turnovers, which is frustrating, but if he’s connecting on downfield throws, gets to make plays with his legs, and is otherwise playing error-free football he’ll stick for a while yet. If the Week 4 performances start to pile up, where Mariota makes enough outright errors that the team is essentially forced to run it and keep the ball out of his hands, the Falcons may accelerate their plans slightly, but they’re not going to insert Ridder in the next week or two unless Mariota completely collapses.

The third is just where the team is in the standings. I’ve long believed they’ll consider a midseason quarterback change, but that was also based on the theory that this brutal early season stretch would likely have Atlanta working with a losing record by Week 8. They’ve been better—and their opponents arguably worse—than expected to this point, so there’s a real chance they’re in the thick of the NFC South race fairly late in the year. If things are clicking and Mariota is a big part of that, he won’t be parked until late in the year, and you might only see Ridder getting action in blowouts until then.

My working expectation is still that the team will strongly consider inserting Ridder into the lineup either in Week 8 against the Panthers (because they stink and it’s nice to ease your rookie in) or in December against the Steelers (with 10 days of rest following a Thursday night game) or the Saints (following a bye week). The context of the team’s situation and Mariota’s performance will be the determining factors as to whether it’s earlier

And it will happen at some point, because this is about the future of the franchise. The Falcons need to determine whether Ridder can be their next long-term answer at quarterback, or if they need to try to secure that player via the draft, a trade, or free agency next year with Ridder as a capable backup. They can eyeball that while Ridder’s in practice, but they need to see him command the offense for at least a few games to feel good about that evaluation heading into a crucial 2023 offseason, and they will. Mariota isn’t necessarily going anywhere because of that—if Ridder ends up being the starter and he’s willing to hang around, he’d be an ideal backup for this team both now and going forward—but he’ll find himself playing behind Ridder at some point this season.

Naturally, none of this will stop the arguments over the when, the why, and even whether the Falcons should replace Mariota at all. At some point, whether it be soon or toward the final weeks of the season, that inevitable change will come to pass regardless. All we can do is root for Mariota to do well and root for Ridder to do well when he gets into the lineup, and hope the Falcons stay competitive no matter who is under center.

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