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Atlanta Falcons 2023 Season Recap

Atlanta Falcons QB Desmond Ridder stripped, sack, fumble
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For the Atlanta Falcons, 2023 was supposed to be the final chapter of a three-year plan. Head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot brought in talent and cleared the dead cap on contracts from both Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. Owner Arthur Blank and CEO Rich McKay firmly believed this was their year to win. 

In addition to the “prove-it year” factor, there was natural hype around the Falcons’ training camp. The crowd watching this Atlanta squad was the largest since 2017. In fact, before the season, Falcons owner Arthur Blank said, “I expect us to win more games than we’ve won the last couple of seasons. […] It feels like a real football team up here in Flowery Branch.”

Equally important, the Falcons had the easiest schedule in the NFL. The stars seemed to align for what could have been a winning season. The only question was at quarterback. No one knew how Desmond Ridder would fare through the season. In his four starts in 2022, he had completed 73 of 115 passes for 708 yards and two touchdowns. This season being a competitive one hinged on a very large bet that Ridder could be at least an average NFL quarterback. 

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Desmond Ridder’s Tumultuous Season

Initially, Ridder played decent football. The Falcons jumped out to a 2-0 start, their first since 2017. Then came the first true test against the Detroit Lions. Atlanta’s offense scored a measly six points in the game, their lowest mark for the season. Ridder would post a below-average 40.8 PFF grade and was sacked seven times, some being his own doing. While concerning, this could be attributed to the “rookie” learning curve. 

Ridder went into the next game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and posted another low grade (47.2) with three turnover-worthy plays, as defined by PFF. It was at this point that fans became concerned with the quarterback. For the rest of the season, Ridder consistently oscillated between good throws and throwing directly to the defense.

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Understandably, these turnover-worthy plays were unavoidable. The larger problem was the absence of Big Time Throws by Ridder. Big Time Throws are defined as “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” As a baseline, you want your franchise quarterback to have more BTT than TWP.

We’ll use Geno Smith‘s season as an example. Geno Smith concluded 2023 with 32 BTT and 21 TWP. Desmond Ridder, on the other hand, delivered 13 BTT to 26 TWP.

This was the opposite of what the organization hoped to see in its young quarterback.

Last offseason, Smith and Terry Fontenot hedged their Ridder bet with the signing of veteran Taylor Heinicke. Rather than pulling the plug, Smith rotated between Ridder and Heinicke for the second half of the season.

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Defense a Bright Spot for 2023 Falcons

The offense cost Smith his job, but the defense was a bright spot.

For the first time since 2017, the Falcons’ defense ranked in the top 15 in PFF’s defense grade. The additions of Kaden Elliss, David Onyemata, and Calais Campbell (plus Ryan Nielsen as coordinator) paid immediate dividends. The biggest addition, however, was Second Team All-Pro safety Jessie Bates III, who signed a four-year, $64.02 million dollar contract with Atlanta last winter. He led the team with 89 tackles and six interceptions in 2023.

The defense played above average, but this unit was also constructed with a win-now mentality.

The average age of the Falcons’ starting defensive line is 32.5; no spring chickens by NFL terms. Even with this veteran presence, Atlanta still had the lowest Pass Rush Win Rate in the NFL (31 percent), per ESPN. The organization’s next head coach will need to focus on the trenches to see this defense remain as effective as they were this year.

Consequently, the Atlanta Falcons’ season was more of the same. The same 7-10 record. The same eighth overall draft pick. This team had a chance to solve its problems with Justin Fields in 2021 and passed. They also opted not to pursue Lamar Jackson when he became available last winter. In the end, those decisions and the inconsistency of Smith’s play-calling have summarized the last few years in Falcons football.

Team Award Winners

MVP – Jessie Bates III

Bates was another cog in the preseason hype machine. Coming from a Cincinnati team with plenty of recent playoff experience, his winning presence was fresh air. Bates was the highest-graded safety in PFF’s database for 2023. Atlanta has filled that position until he decides to retire. 

Rookie of the Year – Bijan Robinson

You can’t help but feel that Robinson still has more untapped potential. The eighth overall pick out of Texas provided sparks in an otherwise stale offense in 2023. Watching Jahmyr Gibbs light up the playoffs gives hope that we can see the same from Robinson under a new head coach — perhaps Gibbs’ current offensive coordinator with the Lions, Ben Johnson?

Best Offseason Addition – Jessie Bates III

Whenever a team lands a marquee player who provides an immediate impact, the front office does backflips. That’s what Bates did for Atlanta. Bates, Kyle Pitts, and A.J. Terrell share an agent, so perhaps all three can stay in Atlanta for a long time.

Biggest Surprise – Nathan Landman

Landman had to step in early after Troy Andersen was placed on IR with a torn pectoral muscle. Most of the time, teams can only pray that whoever fills a void doesn’t get completely overpowered by opposing offenses. This wasn’t the case with “The Landshark.” He came in and played above-average football in Andersen’s place. With a new staff in place, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Falcons roll with Landman in 2024 as the starter.

Biggest Disappointment – Arnold Ebiketie

This isn’t to say that Ebiketie didn’t play well when asked. However, many people expected him to be a bigger part of the defense, specifically in pass-rushing scenarios. This could be attributed to Nielsen’s tendency to deploy bigger, stronger defensive ends in his scheme. With Bud Dupree and Calais Campbell hitting free agency, we will see if Ebiketie gets a larger role in 2024. 

One Burning Question for Falcons

Does Arthur Blank truly believe Bill Belichick is the answer?

The Atlanta Falcons are the only franchise publicly pursuing Bill Belichick. Belichick has had four seasons to rebuild following the Tom Brady era, resulting in a 29-38 record since the future Hall of Famer departed for Tampa Bay. Belichick had the opportunity to draft a quarterback early and move the franchise in the right direction. Actions speak louder than words. Belichick has shown what he would do given a chance to rebuild with a new quarterback, and it isn’t exactly pretty. Why give him another chance to do the exact same thing?

Arthur Blank is an elder statesman. He’ll be 82 at the beginning of the 2024 season and (understandably) wants to see a winner sooner rather than later. However, someone has to let him know that Belichick just may not have that cachet he once held. There are a lot of good candidates in this cycle and the Falcons shouldn’t just settle for the shiny resume from a different era of football.


Main Image Credit:

Embed from Getty Images

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