ATLANTA — The tone was different Sunday afternoon when Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith was asked directly whether or not he’d be making a change at quarterback.
Some of Smith’s previous defiance and conviction on the issue were gone. Smith didn’t definitively say he would. But he left open the option to go from veteran Marcus Mariota to rookie Desmond Ridder as the Falcons head into their bye.
“We’ll evaluate everything,” Smith said. “Every job.”
What will go into that decision? Smith explained — sort of — what he and his staff might be looking for. But he was also cautious not to say too much, at least not now.
“We just finished the game, obviously. I have some private thoughts but we need to decompress, we need to meet as a staff,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of things, sure, we’ve been close, but we’ve got to evaluate everything. We’ve got to get back over the hump, get back into the winning category so there’s a lot that needs to be evaluated , talked about and discussed.
“I understand the questions right now but the game just ended. The bye is coming at a good time for us.”
Mariota — who has started all season after the team drafted Ridder in the third round out of Cincinnati — played well enough during the first half. The Falcons were a surprising 4-4 through eight weeks, as Mariota teetered between moments of brilliance and games that were rough.
The last month has seen that balance tip to the negative end of the scale. The Falcons have lost four of five games heading into the bye week, and Mariota has not completed over 65% of his passes in a game since Oct. 30.
Entering Sunday, he had been off target on 18.9% of his passes, sixth-worst in the league, ahead of just Houston’s Davis Mills (who has been benched), the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson (who has been benched), the Washington quarterback duo of Taylor Heinicke and Carson Wentz and Chicago quarterback Justin Fields.
Mariota has done some good things. He has been efficient in the red zone, completing 60% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and one interception. His running and zone read abilities give Atlanta a different offensive dimension, as he averages 5.15 yards a carry with four touchdowns. Mariota has shown the ability to handle all the pre-snap adjustments that Smith’s scheme requires.
But his play has also limited the Falcons. His completion percentage of 61.3% is ahead of just Russell Wilson in terms of full-time starters who weren’t benched (Carolina’s Baker Mayfield, Wilson) or a replacement for a starter (Dallas’ Cooper Rush). His nine interceptions are tied for No. 28 in the league with Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, but Cousins and Rodgers each have over 100 more dropbacks than Mariota.
Smith said he wanted to make sure he wasn’t making a decision based on overreaction — one way or the other.
“You want to make sure you’re doing the right thing,” Smith said. “Not overreacting emotionally. Sometimes it changes, there’s plenty of examples where that can maybe help, spark something. So, every option is on the table.”
On Sunday, Mariota completed 13 of 24 passes — 54.2% — for 167 yards, one touchdown and one interception while rushing three times for 17 yards. Of his missed passes, he had multiple bad overthrows. On one play late in the second quarter, Mariota threw the ball into what appeared to be double coverage to Olamide Zaccheaus when he had Drake London, this year’s No. 8 overall pick who had a career-high six catches for 95 yards Sunday, opening with no one around him.
This might seem like a specific criticism, except it happened often. On downfield throws, it’s been a season-long issue as Mariota has completed 28.6% of his passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air, tied with Fields for No. 31 in the league, ahead of just Lamar Jackson and Wilson.
Mariota’s final throw Sunday was a game-sealing interception for the Steelers. It was a tough position to be in, backed up on their own 2-yard-line with 42 seconds left, needing a field goal to tie. The drive never got started. Mariota threw the interception on the first play, sending the Falcons’ staff into another round of questions about their quarterback.
Mariota said Sunday he wasn’t thinking about whether or not Atlanta might replace him as a starter.
“That’s not where my mind is at,” Mariota said. “You’re still trying to reflect on what happened in the game. At the end of the day, they have to make a decision that’s best for the team and whatever happens, happens, but I’m not really thinking about that right now .”
MyCole Pruitt hauls in the pass from Marcus Mariota and dives into the end zone for a touchdown.
The Falcons have a week-plus to have conversations and make a decision. If they did make a change soon, it would give Ridder, the No. 74 overall pick in the 2022 draft, more time to prepare. The 23-year-old was praised in the offseason for how quickly he picked up the playbook, appearing during the preseason with the second-and-third teams. Ridder has yet to see a regular season snap but has run the scout team during practices. He’s spent additional post-practice time working with players on the practice squad and back half of Atlanta’s roster to get more reps in the absence of live game action.
“Regardless of if he’s a rookie or not, Des has a dual mandate,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said recently. “The mandate is to make himself, prepare himself as if he can play which gets himself ready physically and mentally. Then the other mandate is to make sure he is the best he can be for the starter, which is Marcus.”
The reality of where Atlanta is in the playoff race could factor into the Mariota vs. Ridder’s decision. The Falcons are still alive, mostly because the NFC South is the worst division in football, with no teams even at .500. Tampa Bay and New Orleans play on Monday night. If the Buccaneers win Monday and then the following Sunday against San Francisco, they’d have a two-game lead with four to play, further reducing Atlanta’s chances.
By the time the Falcons have to play a game again, they could be two games back or in a tie for first place, depending on what Tampa, New Orleans and Carolina do. But after losing four out of five, and seeing a chance at running away with the division having been all but eliminated, Smith knows something has to change.
“There’s a lot of things we can improve on and we need to, right? It’s going to be hard when you have low-possession games and you’re playing in the teens, that’s not what we want,” Smith said. “We want to get back in the winning side. We’ve played a lot of close games. It’s not an issue of [the] guys, and you see the resolve we have no matter what. There are no moral victories. We’ve got to get over this hump.
“We have to look at everything and get back to the other side of winning. There’s a lot of reasons why. It’ll be good to take a step back. There will be changes made. We’ve got to look at everything. “