FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons are turning to rookie Desmond Ridder at quarterback, announcing Monday that Marcus Mariota has been benched with the team still in contention for a playoff berth but struggling with four losses in its past five games.
The Falcons (5-8) made the switch to Ridder to bolster an offense that is averaging just 17.6 points a game during its recent skid. The third-round pick led Cincinnati to a College Football Playoff berth a season ago but has yet to take a snap in an NFL game that counts.
“It’s a performance-based decision,” coach Arthur Smith said. “We’re trying to push the offense. We feel like this is the best decision for where he’s at, where the team’s at.”
Atlanta is only a game behind Tampa Bay (6-7) in the NFC South, still contending in a division where no team has a winning record.
Smith’s decision was a huge blow to Mariota’s hopes of finally fulfilling the potential that made him the No. 2 overall pick by Tennessee in the 2015 draft, coming off a Heisman Trophy-winning college career at Oregon.
Mariota wasn’t at the Falcons’ complex Monday. He was getting a chronic knee problem checked out and could go on the injured reserve list, which would end his season, according to Smith.
The coach stressed that Mariota’s knee issue was not the reason for the quarterback change. The Falcons signed Logan Woodside off Tennessee’s practice squad with an eye toward him becoming Ridder’s backup.
Mariota was demoted by the Titans near the midway point of the 2019 season, spent the past two seasons riding the bench for the Las Vegas Raiders, and landed with the Falcons this year after the team traded longtime starter Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts.
Mariota was handed the starting job by Smith, a former offensive coordinator for the Titans, and showed flashes of promise as the Falcons lingered near .500 over the first half of the season, good enough for occasional stints in first place in the weak NFC South.
But the past five games persuaded Smith to give Ridder a shot coming off a bye week. The Falcons play their next two games on the road, beginning with Sunday’s game at New Orleans against the division rival Saints (4-9).
The 23-year-old Ridder hasn’t played in a game since the preseason.
Mariota assumes a backup role after completing 61.3% of his passes for 2,219 yards, with 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions in a conservative, run-oriented offense. He contributed to the ground game with 438 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
In his next-to-last start, Mariota threw a pass that was deflected in the end zone for an interception that sealed Washington’s 19-13 victory. In his last start, he was picked off again in the final minute from deep in his own territory to finish off a 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The switch to Ridder likely ends any shot that Mariota had to hold down the Falcons’ job over the long term, and could be his last meaningful opportunity to start for any team in the NFL.
The Falcons, on the other hand, may hurt their playoff chances by switching to a rookie at this late stage of the season but could benefit over the long term.
The final four games of the regular season will give Smith a meaningful body of work to determine if Ridder has long-term potential as a starter, or if the team needs to focus on the draft or a trade to land its No. 1 QB in 2023.
Ridder was a four-year starter at Cincinnati, where he had a career record of 42-6. In his final season, he helped the Bearcats became the first non-Power 5 team to claim a spot in the CFP, where they fell to Alabama 27-6 in the Cotton Bowl semifinal game.
As a senior, Ridder threw for 3,334 yards with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for 355 yards and six touchdowns.
Hoping to be a first-round pick, he slipped all the way to the third round — No. 74 overall — before the Falcons called his name.
Ridder was clearly upset that he didn’t go on Day 1 of the draft and vowed to make the rest of the league pay.
“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” an emotional Ridder told Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot.
Now, Ridder’s got a chance to back up his words.
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