The Atlanta Falcons, running out of chances to keep their postseason hopes alive, are making another change at quarterback, benching starter Desmond Ridder for the second time this season and turning again to backup Taylor Heinicke.
Ridder, who leads the NFL with six red-zone turnovers this year, had a costly one Sunday, throwing an interception in the fourth quarter that set up Carolina’s 90-yard drive for a winning field goal as time expired in a 9-7 victory. The Falcons (6-8) are a game behind the Bucs and Saints with three weeks to play and have only an 11% chance to make the playoffs, according to the New York Times’ playoff simulator.
“When you have that responsibility of the football and knowing the situation, those are critical mistakes,” coach Arthur Smith said Monday. “[Ridder] would be the first to tell you. There’s a lot of good that Des has done. Again, the blame doesn’t all go to him, but that’s the same thing with the head coach, it is your responsibility, especially as a quarterback.”
Smith has stuck with Ridder for much of this season, despite consistent turnovers — he has 10 interceptions and six lost fumbles, including three of each in the red zone, a league high. Heinicke took over midway through a loss to the Titans in Week 8 and started two games, losing both, before the Falcons gave the starting job back to Ridder. Heinicke has better numbers overall, with three touchdowns against one interception in his limited action.
Two weeks ago, the Falcons were in first place in the NFC South, in position to end a six-year playoff drought, but close losses to the Bucs and Panthers have them on the outside looking in. Smith said Monday that he understands the frustration and disappointment that Falcons fans have with how the season has unfolded.
“Certainly, we’re not where we want to be. We’ve lost some close games, but it’s not over,” Smith said. “We will die trying to make sure we get this right and go win this game, and let’s see what happens, but I understand. That is a responsibility, and it’s a burden you carry. You’re not a victim. You never want to lose that passion and love that you get to go do this job because it is a privilege. Thankful that we still have some life, but I understand the frustration. We want to win, and that’s your job.”
Atlanta’s problems haven’t been limited to Ridder. The Falcons are 26th in scoring, and the running game that was a large part of their identity last season has taken a step back, despite using a top-10 pick on an offensive skill-position player for the third year in a row with running back Bijan Robinson. Atlanta ranked fourth in the NFL in yards per carry last season, but the Falcons rank 21st this year, and Robinson had a fumble in the third quarter of Sunday’s loss and didn’t touch the ball again the rest of the game.
Atlanta is a two-point home underdog Sunday against the Colts (8-6), who have turned their season around, winning five of their past six after a 3-5 start. Backup quarterback Gardner Minshew, who took over after rookie Anthony Richardson was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury, has thrown for 14 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
Sending Ridder to the bench again with three games left almost certainly signals the end of his run as Atlanta’s starting quarterback. The Falcons would have the No. 10 pick in the draft by the current standings, so taking a passer there would be a possibility, and they also could bring in a veteran quarterback in the offseason.
NFL Rankings: Where do the Falcons stand?
The Falcons went 7-10 in each of Smith’s first two seasons, and their remaining games are against surging teams. After the Colts, they face a Bears team that has won three of five games, and they close against the Saints, who have won two straight and are tied for the division lead. If Atlanta were to lose out and finish short of last year’s win total, Smith’s future would be uncertain.
“Sometimes you look at failure and certainly you can say it’s catastrophic, or it can teach you a valuable lesson. What is the fine line?” Smith said Monday. “Things happen sometimes where you feel like you’re close, and you’re not getting the results you want, there are a couple things you need to tweak and then you have a breakthrough.
“It would be one thing if we were getting blown out or just hopeless. It’s frustrating when you’ve been in some of these close games and you haven’t gotten it done for a variety of reasons, but if you look at those setbacks as a moment, as long as you’ve still got life, you can improve. … Your greatest success can come after that.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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