Falcons elevate Taylor Heinicke to starting QB against Vikings

Michael RothsteinESPN Staff WriterNov 1, 2023, 11:44 AM ET5 Minute Read

Arthur Smith announces Falcons’ QB starter vs. Vikings

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — On Sunday, Taylor Heinicke insisted the Atlanta Falcons were still Desmond Ridder’s team. By Wednesday, the Falcons have — at least for now — named Heinicke the team’s starting quarterback.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith, in announcing the move, made it clear it was a decision for this week. He declined to answer multiple questions about whether Heinicke’s role as Atlanta’s starter could last beyond Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings or explain too much about why the team made the decision.

“There’s a lot of variables,” Smith said. “Then, really, considering the last 72 hours and kind of where we’re at right now, going into this week with Minnesota, getting ready to play the Vikings, obviously a really good team coming in here.

“Going with Taylor, and that’s why he’s here right now.”

Smith said that Ridder has cleared the concussion protocol tests and that as long as the week goes well, he will serve as the No. 2 quarterback to Heinicke. This conversation started because Ridder was evaluated for a concussion during the team’s 28-23 loss to the Tennessee Titans, a game in which Heinicke replaced Ridder at halftime.

On Sunday, Smith said the Falcons didn’t pull Ridder for performance but rather because he seemed “off” despite clearing testing and, with the rhythm they were in, they wanted to stick with Heinicke. On Monday, Smith said he was going to lean on the medical experts first in making decisions on who his starting quarterback would be against Minnesota. On Wednesday, Smith said Ridder is “clear, [will] be available, but just right now in the short term, it’ll be Taylor this Sunday.”

Smith said that there is no long-term plan in mind when it comes to Heinicke vs. Ridder at this point in Atlanta and that the Falcons, tied for the NFC South lead at 4-4 with the New Orleans Saints, are focused solely on Minnesota and a Vikings squad that will be starting rookie Jaren Hall, a fifth-round pick this year, at quarterback Sunday.

“There are a lot of variables, just kind of looking at it in the short term,” Smith said. “But really our focus is short term and what gives us the best chance Sunday, everything considered, a lot of variables.”

Smith declined to get into medical conversations about where Ridder is at — Smith had mentioned discussions with medical staffs Sunday and Monday — other than to say he’s cleared. He also didn’t get too far into the decision-making process, other than to continue to say there were “a lot of variables.”

Is this performance-based? “There’s a lot of variables,” Smith said.

Is this a medical decision? “A lot of variables,” Smith said.

Could the Falcons be using this as a reset for Ridder after three turnover-filled starts? Smith: “There’s a lot of variables that go into it.”

From a performance perspective, Ridder completed 65.4% of his passes this season for 1,701 yards, 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in his eight starts. He also had seven fumbles — six lost. The past three weeks he combined for seven turnovers — four fumbles lost and three interceptions, with four turnovers coming in the red zone. Atlanta went 1-2 in those games, defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but with losses to the Washington Commanders and Tennessee.

This isn’t the first time Heinicke has been placed in this position. Last season, he replaced Carson Wentz in Washington. In 2021, he started 15 games after the team’s initial starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, was injured in the season opener.

Heinicke, who is from Atlanta, has played in 34 career games with 25 starts — completing 63.7% of his passes for 5,920 yards, 35 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

Part of the reason Atlanta signed Heinicke was his experience and what Smith called his “spatial awareness, he’s got a unique ability to extend plays,” and also his decision-making in getting the ball out of his hands to a potential pass-catcher. Having faced — and lost to — Heinicke the past two seasons when he was in Washington also helped in the franchise’s evaluation before bringing him in as the backup to Ridder.

“You have moments in the season where things come up,” Smith said. “He’s a legitimate pro, and that’s why we like him. He goes in there, and that’s not an easy job, I guess, you know, coming out of the bathroom and telling him ‘Hey, here’s the ball, go play.’

“That’s what makes Taylor who he is and why we have such appreciation for him.”

Heinicke found out he was playing Sunday against Tennessee while he was in the bathroom at halftime. He then came out and completed 12 of 21 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. The offense also moved more smoothly with Heinicke in the second half.

It’s unclear whether Heinicke will have his top receiver Sunday, either. Drake London left the loss to Tennessee with a groin injury, and although he told ESPN on Sunday that he’ll be “fine,” he won’t practice Wednesday. Smith said they’ll have to see how the week goes to know whether London, who has 37 catches for 438 yards and two touchdowns, will be available against Minnesota.

Smith said they considered “everything” when making the decision to start Heinicke this week as he tried to avoid reactionary thinking. Eventually, this is where he came down. Starting Heinicke over Ridder — at least for one game.

Could it be more? Smith was “not going to get into hypotheticals,” either, as to whether Heinicke’s performance against Minnesota could alter how the franchise handles the position the rest of the season.

“Every Monday, you know, that’s our job, and everything that goes on, you evaluate,” Smith said. “That’s our job to constantly evaluate everything.”


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