FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Falcons head coach Arthur Smith knew he was taking a risk last week when he chose to make rookie Desmond Ridder his starting quarterback. What he didn’t know at the time is that he wouldn’t have a safety net for that decision.
That’s how things turned out, though, when veteran Marcus Mariota left the team at least temporarily to have what Smith described as a “chronic” knee issue evaluated. The Falcons don’t know when or if Mariota, who started the first 13 games of the season, will return to the team, and they anticipate placing the quarterback on injured reserve, Smith said.
The knee “is nothing that has been an issue this season, but that’s (Mariota’s) prerogative so … ” Smith said. “Of course, you want all your guys to be here, but guys have to make decisions. It’s part of professional sports. You have to have contingency plans.”
Atlanta signed Logan Woodside, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, off Tennessee’s practice squad to serve as the backup quarterback. Woodside has completed 1 of 3 passes for 7 yards in his NFL career, which makes him the most experienced quarterback on the roster.
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Ridder has yet to play in a regular-season game, and the only other player on the Falcons’ roster who could reasonably play the position is Feleipe Franks, who was 0-for-1 passing with one interception last year before being moved to tight end in the offseason.
Smith informed Mariota of the decision to make a change at quarterback on Thursday morning. The Falcons learned Friday that Mariota planned to step away from the team. This is the second time Mariota has been benched while playing for Smith. The first came in 2019 when Mariota was Tennessee’s starting quarterback and Smith was the Titans’ offensive coordinator.
“Those (conversations) are never easy,” Smith said. “You try to be truthful, whether they agree or not, those are the conversations you have to have.”
The Falcons signed Mariota to a two-year, $18.75 million deal in the offseason. If he is cut after the season, they would save $12 million worth of salary-cap hit and have to count only $2.5 million worth of dead money to the cap.
The decision to elevate Ridder was “performance-based,” Smith said. Mariota was 184-for-300 passing for 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 close games and where we’re trying to push the offense,” Smith said. “We feel like it’s the best decision where (Ridder) is at and where the team’s at. I wouldn’t have made this decision if I didn’t think it was in the best interest of this team, not only short term but probably long term as well.”
Ridder, who was 34-for-56 passing for 431 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in the preseason, has made enough progress in the last month that the Falcons believe the offense “can operate at full capacity” with him in the game, Smith said.
“We would have had to adapt if he had had to play early in the season,” Smith said. “I feel really good about where he’s at right now. If I thought we had to restrict him, that wouldn’t be the best move and that wouldn’t be fair to this team.”
Falcons running back Caleb Huntley said he was surprised when he learned of the news via social media on Thursday. Huntley’s and Ridder’s lockers are side by side in the team’s practice facility, and Huntley said he thinks Ridder is ready for the challenge.
“He’s a cool guy, funny, I feel like he can command the huddle,” Huntley said. “I knew his time was going to come sooner or later. I think he’s ready for it.”
Falcons will learn if Desmond Ridder can fix the passing game’s biggest flaw
Ridder looked sharp during Atlanta’s walk-through on Monday, Huntley said.
“He’s always looked pretty good at practice,” Huntley said. “He makes the throws that he needs to, and he’s always confident, so I know he’ll be ready.”
Monday was the team’s first official workout since a Dec. 4 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Falcons had a bye last week. Smith made the decision to change quarterbacks last week, but the team didn’t announce the decision until Monday.
Running back Tyler Allgeier, who goes to dinner with Ridder and fellow rookies Drake London and John FitzPatrick the night before every game, spent part of his off week catching passes from his friend to help build on-field chemistry, he said.
“Just go out and work with him, get our timing down, get his trust in us, get our trust in him, just kind of get in that routine with him,” Byrd said. “I’m here for whatever our coaches feel is necessary to help us win these next few games so we can get in the playoffs.”
Atlanta is one game behind division leader Tampa Bay. The Falcons’ top priority is to maximize this season’s potential, Smith said, but the coach at least acknowledged the fact that evaluating Ridder now could have future benefits for the team.
“There is risk anytime you make a move, but you have to be willing to take that if you want to break through,” Smith said. “We have been in a lot of close games, made a lot of progress, but our objective is to get over that hump. If it benefits us in the long term, that’s a really good thing for us.”
(Top photo of Marcus Mariota, left, and Desmond Ridder: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)