Team Needs: Falcons Take Risk Without a Backup Quarterback

If polled, a majority Atlanta Falcons fans would probably tell you that it was by some miracle that quarterback Matt Ryan made it through the entire 2013 season healthy. According to Advanced NFL Stats, Ryan was hit 90 times, the fifth most allowed of any team in the NFL this past season. That was up from 83 hits he suffered in 2012 over 18 games, and continued the now six-year trend of ever-increasing punishment suffered by Ryan. When Ryan first arrived in Atlanta in 2008, he was hit just 43 times, which was the second lowest number allowed in the league that season. In the time since, Ryan has been put on the turf more with each subsequent season.

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Dominique Davis and Matt Ryan

The time when a quarterback takes a hit that prompts an injury is essentially random. That’s illustrated by the fact that Ryan managed to absorb 90 hits during the course of the 2013 season without being forced to leave the field, while Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo injured his ribs upon taking his first hit of the season in Week 1. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the more shots you take, the more exposed you are to injury.

Obviously, the best way to protect Ryan is to improve the blocking up front. But the Falcons as an organization aren’t just tasked with protecting Ryan to the best of their abilities, but also protecting themselves by solidifying their depth at quarterback. Even if the team dramatically decreases the number of hits Ryan takes next season, any one of those shots could be the one that puts him out of the game for an extended period of time.

As it stands, Dominique Davis and Sean Renfree are the team’s lone backup quarterbacks. Davis showed promise as an undrafted rookie in 2012, but showed little progress in his second training camp. Renfree struggled after missing much of the offseason recovering from a chest injury, and then promptly suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the summer which forced him to miss the entire season. That is now three major injuries that Renfree has suffered to his throwing arm in the 12 months: elbow, torn pectoral and now shoulder. One of my major concerns with Renfree when I scouted him last year was his durability. Coupled with a subpar first preseason, it doesn’t bode well for him developing into the sort of competent backup quarterback the Falcons need.

The Falcons let Seth Doege walk after the season, after spending the entire year on the practice squad. It was no surprise, since Doege took zero snaps during the preseason to prompt his retention on the practice squad to begin with. His departure opens the door for the Falcons to bring in another quarterback at some point this offseason. However, the big question becomes when that addition will be made. Given the youth of both Davis and Renfree, it is unlikely the Falcons will draft another quarterback unless they absolutely fall in love with a guy and he falls into the late rounds. Instead, the Falcons will likely either turn to a veteran quarterback or another undrafted rookie free agent like Doege to fill the void.

How they feel about Davis likely will determine that decision to go with youth or experience. If the team is still optimistic that Davis can be a capable No. 2 quarterback, then it likely means they go with the undrafted rookie. If not, then it prompts them to seek a reserve with a bit more experience that can compete for the job.

If I was a betting man, I’d wager that the Falcons are confident enough in Davis to not bring in veteran competition. But I also believe that would be a mistake. While Davis has shown promise, the two areas he’s shown little progress in is his accuracy and decision making, arguably the two most important aspects of playing the quarterback position in the NFL.

In 2013, the prototype for a quality backup was Chicago Bears quarterback Josh McCown, who started five games after starter Jay Cutler went down with an injury. The Bears won three of those games, keeping their playoff hopes alive to the point where they could gain postseason entry had they won in Week 17 against the Green Bay Packers. That was in stark contrast to the 2011 season where Cutler went down with injury and the Bears lost four straight games due to poor play by then backup Caleb Hanie, knocking them out of playoff contention.

Based off his play through two summers, Davis looks much more akin to Hanie than McCown. Davis really struggled to throw accurate passes beyond 10 yards this past summer, and as we saw during the middle stretch of season where the Falcons had no vertical potential in the offense, this team struggled to move the ball and score points. And if a quarterback as good as Ryan is only capable of scoring 10-13 points in that sort of limited offense, what do you imagine a player like Davis is going to do?

Even if the Falcons wind up making necessary improvements to the rest of their roster and get back on track to earning a playoff berth, all that could go away with one untimely hit on the quarterback, as it did for the Bears in 2011. The best case scenario for the Falcons is bringing in a veteran passer that has some starting experience, and Davis can beat him in an open competition in camp. If that were to happen, then it would signal that Davis is potentially capable of handling the task at hand of keeping the Falcons playoff hopes afloat if thrust upon him. But if not, and the Falcons just add another Seth Doege to the mix, a player that isn’t even good enough to play a single snap of preseason football, then the Falcons are tempting fate that injuries once again submarine their season in 2014.

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Aaron Freeman
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