The Atlanta Falcons will have more on the line than retaining hope in the weak NFC South race as rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder makes his debut as the starter on Sunday at New Orleans.
That game is the start of a four-week audition for Ridder that could help determine the Falcons’ long-term plan at quarterback.
Ridder was named the starter by coach Arthur Smith on Monday. On Wednesday, the Falcons lost their only experienced quarterback when they announced that former starter Marcus Mariota was placed on injured reserve and will have knee surgery.
With Mariota out of the picture, the Falcons must be patient with Ridder in the final four games. The team’s only other options at quarterback are Logan Woodside, who was signed off Tennessee’s practice squad on Monday, and Feleipe Franks, who primarily is a tight end.
Ridder will be playing to secure the inside track on the starting job in 2023.
“It’s excitement,” Ridder said Wednesday when asked about his new starting role. “My dream job obviously was to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.”
Atlanta’s three remaining quarterbacks have combined to complete one pass in a regular-season game. Ridder has played only in the preseason.
Ridder impressed the Falcons as a quick learner in training camp and the preseason. He convinced the team only in recent weeks that he was ready to start. Smith said Wednesday he saw “a lot of accelerated growth” in the rookie in the last month.
Ridder acknowledged that even he won’t know if he’s ready until his regular-season debut.
“You can’t know you’re fully prepared, but you can prepare to the fullest,” Ridder said.
Smith said Mariota will have knee surgery next week but that he had no details on the procedure.
Mariota has played every snap this season and had not been on the injury report. It was a surprise when Smith said Monday that the quarterback decided to have a chronic knee condition examined and likely would land on IR.
Like Smith, quarterbacks coach Charles London had no answers for Mariota’s injury, saying “that’s above my pay grade.”
“We appreciate Marcus and everything he did for us this season,” London said. “He was really good for us. I appreciate his work and hope he heals up.”
Smith stressed on Monday the quarterback change was based on performance, not Mariota’s health. The switch to Ridder came after the Falcons (5-8) lost four of five games, scoring no more than 17 points in those four losses.
Despite the team’s slump and offensive malaise, Mariota could have provided value as an experienced backup for Ridder. The Falcons are only one game behind first-place Tampa Bay in the woeful NFC South.
Asked if there were talks about Mariota pushing back the surgery, Smith said, “We’re moving on. … My focus is now.”
Saints linebacker Pete Werner, who while at Ohio State played one college game against Ridder, said the rookie is “pretty similar to the guy (Mariota) that we played before.”
“He is a very, very good player,” Werner said of Ridder. “We’ve got a handful this week. … I know it’s his first start. So, we’ve got to do a good job.”
It was a disappointing end of the season for Mariota, the former No. 2 overall draft pick was looking to revive his career after spending most of the last three seasons as a backup.
Mariota completed 61.3% of his passes for 2,219 yards, with 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions in Atlanta’s run-first offense. He ran for 438 yards and four touchdowns, providing a dual-threat at quarterback that is expected to continue with Ridder.
With Mariota on IR, the Falcons have an unusual shortage of experience at quarterback.
Woodside completed 1 of 3 passes in two seasons with Tennessee, Ridder will be making his regular-season debut and quarterback/tight end Feleipe Franks threw an interception on his only pass attempt in 2021. Franks’ only action this season has come at tight end.
Woodside was attractive because the Falcons’ offense is similar to the scheme run by the Titans, where Smith was the former offensive coordinator.
“Logan has been here for two days and he’s fit right in,” London said. “Obviously he’s familiar with the system from being in Tennessee.”
The Falcons hope Ridder, a third-round draft pick out of Cincinnati, needs no backup help from Woodside.
“I just want to see him go out there and command the offense,” London said of Ridder. “Take charge and command and be out there and be aggressive. The guys will follow him when that happens.”