Increasingly in the spotlight due to passing-game limitations, the Falcons’ quarterback situation will undergo a change when the team next takes the field. Atlanta is benching Marcus Mariota for rookie Desmond Ridder, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets.
The second quarterback chosen this year, Ridder has not taken any snaps as a pro yet. The Falcons will begin the Cincinnati product’s audition following their bye week. Atlanta faces New Orleans in Week 15.
While Mariota’s longest run as a starter since 2018 has resulted in a potent Falcons ground attack, the team has not offered much through the air. Mariota has not topped 200 passing yards since Week 8; the Falcons rank 31st in passing. They are 5-8 and 1.5 games behind the Buccaneers, who have used two game-winning drives to take control of the NFL’s worst division this year. A recent report indicated the Falcons would stick with Mariota as long as they were in contention. But Arthur Smith said following Sunday’s home loss to the Steelers everything was on the table at this position.
Atlanta pulled the plug on the Matt Ryan era in March, unloading its 14-year starter after seeing its Deshaun Watson pursuit finish in what was believed to be the silver-medal position. The Browns’ unprecedented contract offer — five years for a fully guaranteed $230MM — enticed Watson to nix believed plans to play in his home state and waive his no-trade clause for Cleveland. The Falcons traded Ryan to the Colts soon after, and Smith then reunited with Mariota via a two-year, $18.75MM deal.
Although Smith had benched Mariota midway through his first season as Titans OC, he designed his second Falcons offense around the former No. 2 overall pick. Mariota’s contract calls for $12MM in 2023. Of that total, $3MM is due via a roster bonus on the fifth day of the 2023 league year, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com tweets.
Mariota, who backed up Ryan Tannehill for most of 2019 and served as Derek Carr‘s backup from 2020-21, does have a 15-to-9 touchdown pass-to-interception ratio and ranks 14th in QBR. But the Falcons used top-10 picks on pass catchers in each of the past two drafts. They have remained a run-oriented offense, putting the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier to work. That plan resulted in inconsistent years for Drake London and, especially, Kyle Pitts. The latter finished his abbreviated season with 28 receptions for 356 yards; this came after Ryan helped Pitts become only the second rookie tight end in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards.
A four-year starter at Cincinnati, Ridder impressed as both a passer and runner at the American Athletic Conference program. The 6-foot-4 QB topped 500 rushing yards in three of his four Bearcats seasons and showed progress through the air as a senior. After failing to exceed 2,500 passing yards from 2018-20, Ridder threw for 3,334 yards and 30 touchdowns to help Cincinnati become the first Group of Five school to crash the College Football Playoff last season.
The Falcons stopped Ridder’s freefall at No. 74, selecting the experienced college passer ahead of Malik Willis and Matt Corral, and saw their draftee flash during the preseason. Atlanta’s delay in benching Mariota for Ridder confounded some around the league for weeks. The team, which took on extensive dead money to move Ryan and Deion Jones in trades, was not expected to contend this season. Were the Falcons in another division, it is worth wondering if they would have made the Ridder decision earlier. But they will begin this examination with four games remaining. While it is a bit later than most expected coming into the season, this stretch will help determine how the Falcons proceed at quarterback in 2023.