ATLANTA — As third-year head coach Arthur Smith uses the Atlanta Falcons' open date this week to consider what he hopes will be his final starting quarterback decision of the season, Desmond Ridder's strongest pitch may have been the confidence he showed when he replaced the injured Taylor Heinicke in last Sunday's 25-23 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Ridder started the first eight games, producing a 4-4 record. Heinicke passed for 268 yards with one touchdown and one interception in a 31-28 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 5, then incurred a low-grade hamstring injury in the fourth quarter against the Cardinals.
If Heinicke is limited by the injury next week, it could make Smith's decision to start Ridder easy when the Falcons (4-6) return to competition against the New Orleans Saints, an NFC South Division rival.
Ridder impressed Smith by wanting the ball against Arizona when the game was on the line. On Monday, when Smith said he wasn't ready to name a starter for the remainder of the season, some of his comments gave the impression he may give Ridder another opportunity.
"I thought it was a good reset for Des," Smith said of the second-year pro's two weeks as Heinicke's backup.
Smith was impressed by Ridder's decisions against the Cardinals, including his 9-yard run on a keeper for a touchdown late in the game. On Oct. 22, Ridder lost three fumbles, including one on a similar run near the goal line, in a 16-13 division win against the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I always watch who wants the ball when the game is on the line, and he wanted the ball in his hands," Smith said of Ridder, a third-round draft pick in 2022 who went 2-2 as Atlanta's starter at the end of his rookie season. "That's why we loved him coming out of (the University of) Cincinnati."
It's crucial Smith makes the right decision on the starter for the final seven games. Despite a three-game losing streak, Atlanta's playoff hopes remain realistic in the underwhelming NFC South. The Saints (5-5), also off this week, are first in the division, with the Bucs (4-5) second and the Carolina Panthers (1-8) fourth.
If being temporarily removed from the starting job helped Ridder "reset" and regain his confidence, he could start when the Falcons play New Orleans on Nov. 26.
"The biggest thing for all of us is getting rest, mentally and physically," Ridder said of having a week without a game to prepare for. "Coming back for when we play the Saints to play healthy."
Turnover woes — six interceptions and seven fumbles — might have affected Ridder's confidence, causing him to hold the ball too long and accept too many sacks, before losing his starting job to Heinicke.
"Sometimes you need a fresh perspective," Smith said. "That's what I think helped him. And I think you saw when he got in there (against Arizona). I saw his confidence. ... The reset, the refocus and working on things that I thought could help him, he's done that."
Smith has said he wants to announce a starter after the open date and stick with that choice.
The Falcons need steady leadership on the sideline and at quarterback to avoid giving away close games. The team's last three wins have come by a combined six points. The last three losses were by a combined 10 points.
"They're all coming down to the wire," Smith said. "If all of a sudden it was hopeless or morale was low, then, yeah, that's a completely different animal. You see that, and you're like, there's no hope. That's not the case here. As frustrated as you feel, you have to look at it.
"The results are what they are, but there's true evidence that we can right this thing."
Ridder or Heinicke could make a strong argument to return as the starter in 2024 by leading the team to the playoffs. If neither takes a firm hold on the job, the Falcons might be forced to look for help in next year's NFL draft.
With Smith facing increased criticism as Atlanta has lost four of its past five games, his future with the team also could be at stake. Team owner Arthur Blank said before the season this was the third year of a three-year plan with Smith, who's 18-26 overall following back-to-back 7-10 finishes in his first two seasons.
"I love the opportunity that I get to do this, and I get to work with the guys that we've got," said Smith, who spent a decade on staff with the Tennessee Titans — the last two as offensive coordinator — before getting his first head coaching opportunity with the Falcons.
"If you lose that perspective, shame on you. You embrace it — the good, the bad, the pressure. That's what you want. That's what you sign up for."