FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Falcons head coach Arthur Smith knew he was taking a risk last week when he decided to make rookie Desmond Ridder his starting quarterback. What he didn’t know at the time was that he wouldn’t have a safety net for that decision.
That’s how it came about, however, when veteran Marcus Mariota left the team, at least temporarily, to have what Smith described as a “chronic” knee problem investigated. The Falcons don’t know when or if Mariota, who started 13 games of the season, will return to the team and they expect to put the quarterback on injured reserve, Smith said.
The knee “isn’t an issue this season, but that’s[Mariota’s]prerogative, so…” Smith said. “Of course you want all your boys to be here, but the boys have to make decisions. It’s part of professional sport. You have to have contingency plans.”
Atlanta signed Logan Woodside, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, from the Tennessee practice team as a backup quarterback. Woodside has completed one in three passes for 7 yards in his NFL career, making him the most experienced quarterback on the roster.
‘No moment is too big for him’: Why Desmond Ridder’s college debut matters so much this week
Ridder has yet to play in a regular-season game, and the only other player on the Falcons’ roster who could play the position reasonably is Feleipe Franks, who went 0-for-1 with an interception last year before being too tight to end in the low season.
Smith informed Mariota of the decision to make a change at quarterback Thursday morning. The Falcons learned Friday that Mariota was planning to retire from the team. This is the second time Mariota has been benched while playing for Smith. The first came in 2019 when Mariota was the Tennessee quarterback and Smith was the Titans’ offensive coordinator.
“These (conversations) are never easy,” Smith said. “You’re trying to be honest about whether or not you agree, those are the conversations you need to have.”
Falcons coach Arthur Smith (left) had a difficult conversation with quarterback Marcus Mariota last week, and Mariota resigned from the team as a result. (Aaron M. Sprecher/Associated Press)
The Falcons signed Mariota to a two-year, $18.75 million deal during the offseason. If he is trimmed after the season, they would save $12 million worth of the salary cap and only have to count $2.5 million in dead money toward the cap.
The decision to raise Ridder was “performance-based,” Smith said. Mariota was 184-to-300 with 2,219 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season. His 88.2 passer rating is 21st in the league and his EPA per game (.66) ranks 20th among quarterbacks.
The Falcons (5-8) have lost four of their last five games.
“We’ve talked about trying to get over the hump in some of these tight games and where we’re trying to push offense,” Smith said. “We believe that where (Ridder) stands and where the team stands is the best decision. I would not have made this decision if I hadn’t felt it was in the best interest of this team, not just in the short term but probably in the long term as well.”
Ridder, who threw 34-for-56 passes for 431 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in the preseason, has made enough strides in the past month that the Falcons believe the offense can “operate at full capacity” with him in the game “. said Smith.
“We would have had to adjust if he had to play early in the season,” Smith said. “I feel really good where he is right now. If I thought we had to cut him down it wouldn’t be the best move and it wouldn’t be fair to this team.”
Falcons running back Caleb Huntley said he was surprised when he heard the news via social media on Thursday. Huntley and Ridder’s lockers stand side by side at the team’s training facility and Huntley said he believes Ridder is up for the challenge.
“He’s a cool guy, funny, I feel like he can command the huddle,” Huntley said. “I knew his time would come sooner or later. I think he’s ready for it.”
The Falcons will find out if Desmond Ridder can fix the passing game’s biggest mistake
Ridder looked sharp during Atlanta’s walk-through Monday, Huntley said.
“He’s always looked pretty good in practice,” Huntley said. “He makes the throws he needs and he’s always confident, so I know he’ll be ready.”
Monday was the team’s first official practice session since a Dec. 4 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Falcons had a reunion last week. Smith made the decision to switch quarterbacks last week, but the team didn’t announce the decision until Monday.
Running back Tyler Allgeier, who goes to dinner the night before every game with Ridder and fellow rookies Drake London and John FitzPatrick, spent part of his week off catching passes from his friend to build chemistry on the field, said he.
The team’s more experienced players will have plenty of time with Ridder this week as the Falcons prepare to face the Saints (4-9) in New Orleans on Sunday, wide receiver Damiere Byrd said.
“Just go out and work with him, tighten our timing, gain his trust in us, gain our trust in him, just sort of get into that routine with him,” Byrd said. “I’m here for whatever our coaches think is necessary to help us win those next few games so we can get to the playoffs.”
Atlanta is a game behind leaders Tampa Bay. The Falcons’ top priority is to maximize this season’s potential, Smith said, but the coach at least acknowledged the fact that rating Ridder now could have future benefits for the team.
“There’s always a risk when you make a move, but you have to be willing to take it if you’re going to break through,” Smith said. “We’ve played a lot of close games and made a lot of progress, but our goal is to get over that hump. If it benefits us in the long run, that’s a very good thing for us.”
(Top photo of Marcus Mariota, left, and Desmond Ridder: Justin Casterline/Getty Images)