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McElhaney: The Falcons need answers, consistency at quarterback in new year

Taylor Heinicke and Desmond Ridder combined for four interceptions in the loss. 

CHICAGO -- Matt Ryan. Marcus Mariota. Desmond Ridder. Taylor Heinicke. Back to Ridder. Back to Heinicke. Three seasons. A multitude of changes at quarterback. Very limited consistency as an offense regardless of who's under center. That's where the Falcons have found themselves as 2023 bleeds into 2024.

The Falcons most recent 37-17 loss to the Chicago Bears illustrated Atlanta's quarterback issues.

In the loss, Taylor Heinicke got the start, his second in two weeks. Heinicke was 10-of-29 through the air with 163 passing yards, one rushing touchdown, three interceptions and a 34.5% completion rate. In all actuality, 75 of those 163 passing yards came on one play; a Tyler Allgeier catch-and-run to start the second quarter. The Bears scored 10 points off of Heinicke's three turnovers.

Then, with about three minutes left in the game, the Falcons sent Ridder out onto a snowy Soldier Field to finish the game. He went into a situation dire for the Falcons and in less-than-ideal conditions. It was a lose/lose.

After the game, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith shed light on the decision, saying the Falcons put Ridder in the game at quarterback because Heinicke had aggravated his ankle. Heinicke was on the Falcons' injury report all week with that same ankle injury. He was a limited participant in Wednesday and Thursday's practices.

When Ridder went in for Heinicke in the fourth quarter, he was 3-for-4 with 17 passing yards. He, too, threw an interception.

All of this information, though? It's starting to feel like a moot point.

Sure the Falcons are still in the hunt. Tampa Bay lost to the Saints Sunday afternoon. This means the Falcons do live to fight another week in the NFC South race. If the Falcons beat the Saints in New Orleans next week and the Bucs simultaneously lose to Panthers, it'll be Atlanta at the top of the division at the regular season end. So, yes, this whole thing is going to come down to Week 18 outcomes.

However, when you look at the overall health and longevity of this Falcons team, that's just the short-term goal.

The long-term goal -- and the question the Falcons have to answer in the new year -- revolves around finding consistency at the quarterback position. More than anything, that is the next step of the franchise because at this point, you've tried a lot that hasn't really worked.

Ryan's contract was too hefty and was weighing the salary cap down. The Mariota experiment fell flat in a rain-soaked Thursday night performance against Carolina. Ridder made one too many costly mistakes at inopportune times, and Heinicke? Well, he was brought in as a backup who could maybe help the Falcons in a pinch. Smith, general manager Terry Fontenot and Heinicke himself said so when Heinicke signed with the Falcons this offseason. 

The three-year arc of this team involves four different quarterbacks in different stages of life and at different points in their career. All were looking to prove something during their time with the Falcons. None panned out.

Sure, there were moments. Ryan is one of the best -- if not the best -- Falcon to play in Atlanta. Say what you want to about Mariota but it could be argued he helped jumpstart the Falcons' run game in early 2022. Then, there's Ridder, who's leadership qualities can't be overlooked. He won over the locker room fair and square. Heinicke helped Atlanta to one of its most dominant performances just last week.

None of this matters, though, because none of it strung together wins or consistent play from the offense. Regardless of quarterback, the Falcons offense only has flash in the pan games as an offense.

The Falcons were 7-10 in 2021, 7-10 in 2022 and if they lose to the Saints next Sunday they'll be 7-10 again. 

This -- of course -- isn't on just one person. Smith was the one to point this out.

"It's never one thing," Smith said when asked about the passing issues in the Falcons loss to Chicago. "To sit here and try to put blame on one person, that's not how football works. There were a lot of things that, obviously, didn't go right. We didn't get the result we wanted, or needed. Really, it's never just on one person."

To put the inconsistencies of the offense on the quarterback situation alone is unfair, and wrong. However, the counterpoint to that is there are only so many common denominators to point to over a three-year span. An ever-changing situation at quarterback is one of them, and the same play caller is the other.

The Falcons have been on the quarterback carousel for three seasons. It's time for something, anything, to give in the search for consistency.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field during Week 17.

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