FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons have not been eliminated from playoff contention. They're right in the thick of it, as a matter of fact, thanks to a down year in the NFC South. The grouping is promised a playoff spot no matter what, and while the Falcons need some help and to win a bunch, their ultimate goals remain within reach.
That seemed like an environment where you'd stick with a veteran quarterback. I long believed the Falcons wouldn't make a move at quarterback if they were still in it, that Marcus Mariota's veteran savvy and experience would be too valuable to relinquish during high-stakes period such as this.
After seeing the Falcons lose four of five, seeing them struggle playing situational football, seeing the passing game stuck in the mud, that thinking changed. Moving on to Desmond Ridder became a realistic option, one that has now been executed heading into Sunday's game against the rival New Orleans Saints. Smith made it clear that this was a performance-based move. This is not change for changes sake, or a move made just to see the young kid work.
The mindset shift, for me anyway, came during that Thursday night loss in Carolina. Mariota wasn't good, dogged by pressure and unable to generate the offense we required to pull out a key road contest. Then came critical, late-game mistakes in losses to Washington and Pittsburgh that put this season in dire straits.
It must be said here that Mariota is a terrific individual and a respected leader with real talent who aided the Falcons a great deal. Ultimately, as Smith said, this was a merit-based move.
We could throw advanced metrics galore at you to illustrate Mariota's struggles, but I think we can all agree that too many opportunities, short, intermediate and deep, were missed.
"In the last month or so," head coach Arthur Smith said, "we've been in a lot of close games and there's things that we need to see evolve in the passing game as we evolve over the season, we like the progress that we've made in the running game—something that we think can benefit us not only in the short term but hopefully in the long term. That's what you're evaluating, our objective is to win."
Smith has often said there's a give-and-take with Mariota, and that's true. He can do some things few others can, with the freak athleticism to extend plays and make magic happen. His ability to run, and the mere threat of it, also changes how Mariota-led offenses are defended. Some missed opportunities are part of the package, and scales started to shift too far in one direction. And, when you're losing, tolerance naturally decreases.
You still need a viable alternative, and those outside Falcons football operations know little about Ridder's progress. He has been running the scout team during the regular season, and hasn't practiced with the first unit much, if at all, in open portions of practice. There's no way Smith makes this change if he didn't think Ridder was ready. He also wants to put the quarterback in position to succeed, and making a change over a bye week has its advantages. The extra time will help him as he prepares for his first regular-season start.
Smith has short-term plans and long-term visions for each player, as he tries to develop them and evaluate potential. Getting Ridder to this point in the season, while continuing his evolution as a player. Smith said Ridder has grown mentally, especially over the last month. There's so much to do in this offense, especially with checks and reads and pre-snap motions, that you've got to be on point.
The Falcons are looking for better play and an improved record down the stretch, whether they're serious playoff contenders or not. Then there's the quest for a long-term solution at quarterback and about whether Ridder can be that guy. We won't have a complete answer to that question after four games, but it's another factor to consider as the Falcons head towards an offseason where they have significant amounts of salary-cap space and draft capital.
Right now, however, Smith's primary focus is on getting a win in New Orleans. He believes Ridder can aid that objective.
"Our focus has got to be on the present and our present situation about going down on the road in a divisional game down in New Orleans," Smith said. "A lot of that other [playoff] stuff doesn't matter if we can't go down there and get a win this weekend. As for the long-term, you're certainly hoping that it pays off, but short term if we make this move it wouldn't be fair to those guys that are in that situation and have been fighting all year.
"A lot of things factored into it, but we've got confidence in Desmond, and again, there's a risk any time that you make a move, but you got to be able to take that if you want to break through and get out of this up and down inconsistency. We've been in a lot of close games, we've made a lot of progress, but our objective is to get over that hump, and if it benefits us in the long term that's a really good thing for us."
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