Surprising Name Winning Key Falcons Competition

Marcus Mariota

Getty A winner is emerging from the Falcons competition at QB.

When you’re entrenched in rebuilding mode the way the Atlanta Falcons are, it’s normal to have competitions at most key areas of the roster. Yet, it can be a problem when there’s a battle at football’s most important position.

That’s the sad reality for the Falcons in 2022 after trading Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts back in March. The face of the franchise since 2008 is set to be replaced either by struggling veteran Marcus Mariota or rookie Desmond Ridder.

It’s not much of a duel on paper. Not when Mariota has spent the past two seasons as a backup for the Las Vegas Raiders, and Ridder is a mere third-round draft pick.

A winner has been emerging during training camp, though. A surprising name to some, perhaps, but one who has impressed coaches and teammates with his comfort and efficiency in the offense.

QB Competition Taking a Surprising Turn

Once Ridder was drafted, many believed he had the simplest path to the starting job as a rookie. It may not turn out that way based on how well Mariota is performing at camp.

The 28-year-old is proving to be the team’s top option, according to ESPN’s Michael Rothstein: “Mariota feels comfortable with the offense and familiar with what he’s being asked to do – even if he has a bunch of new guys playing alongside him. He’s moving well and seems to have a rhythm.”

Evidence of Mariota’s rhythm was made clear by this touch throw lofted to tight end Kyle Pitts, per Kelly Price of Fox 5 Sports:

A comfort level should be there for Mariota, who spent 2019 playing for Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith, when the latter was offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans. Mariota knows the playbook, but it’s also the same scheme he ran when he lost his job to Ryan Tannehill on Smith’s watch.

Going to the bench for Tannehill was the nadir for Mariota in Tennessee. The former Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon rarely lived up to his billing as the second player drafted in 2015. Turnovers and an inability to push the ball vertically were problems for a player who threw 44 interceptions and never averaged over 7.6 yards per throw with the Titans.

So it’s good news Mariota is not forcing the ball at Falcons camp, per Rothstein: “Offensive coordinator Dave Ragone praised Mariota for not pressuring the ball into spots and finding the open receiver. It sounds simple, but often quarterbacks don’t do that. Mariota didn’t throw an incompletion in a team period – at least during the parts open for for observation – until the third day of practice.”

Playing it safe is one thing, but Mariota has been “the crisper, more accurate quarterback” at Flowery Branch. It means it’s likely time to pump the brakes on expectations for Ridder.

Ridder Set for Waiting Game

Quarterbacks coach Charles London didn’t mind naming Mariota the starter entering camp, per Josh Kendall of The Athletic. Yet, the expectation still remained Ridder would take over sooner rather than later.

It’s been that way since the former Cincinnati standout was drafted. Ridder was named as being “neck and neck with Pickett for the easiest track to a starting job of any rookie quarterback” by Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus.

Ridder’s chances of joining Pittsburgh Steelers passer Kenny Pickett as a rookie starter don’t look as strong now, but there’s been enough hype to suggest things could change. Before the draft, former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky praised Ridder for “handling the pocket” at the “highest level in this class.”

There’s even been praise from closer to home, with Smith crediting Ridder as “light years ahead from any other rookie quarterback,” per Maria Martin of 11Alive News. Words like those make it inevitable the competition will continue, with Ridder and Mariota both set to play often during preseason, according to Kendall.

All signs appeared to point to Ridder eventually taking over the job, but Mariota is making sure things won’t run so smoothly. Ridder has the chops as a pro-ready passer, having completed 64.9 percent of his passes and thrown 30 scores during his final season with the Bearcats.

Mariota’s arm talent may not be on the same level, but he remains a dangerous runner, offering another wrinkle to the playbook, one the Falcons are sure to exploit. If he unleashes the same dual-threat skills that made him a top-two pick, Mariota will revive his career and prove the best option to replace Ryan.