It looked like the Atlanta Falcons had finally decided to address their lack of experience at the quarterback position behind starter Matt Ryan this past June when they acquired T.J. Yates via trade from the Houston Texans.
However that decision has yet to pay dividends.
Yates is coming off a very poor performance in the team’s second preseason action against his former team, where he threw two interceptions and had a couple more passes that could have easily been turnovers.
In June, I outlined reasons why the team’s acquisition of Yates was a good move. Those reasons were centered on the fact that Yates had experience as a starter, something the team lacked at the time in reserves Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree and Jeff Mathews, all of whom hardly had any NFL experience.
While by no means did I want to suggest that Yates was a particularly good backup option, he certainly was better than what the team had. And for a Falcons organization that has a tendency to twiddle its thumbs even when there are fairly obvious roster issues, striving for better was at least a step in the right direction if not ultimately the solution.
However, 2014 is a critical year for this team and its coaching staff. At this point for Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who faces scrutiny coming off a 4-12 season, every win that he can get in 2014 matters.
And thus, if having a competent backup quarterback can mean the difference of winning one more game if the team finds itself in the absence of Ryan, then that one decision could ultimately decide Smith’s fate.
The production from the backup quarterback position has been underwhelming the past few summers under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Simply put, outside starter Matt Ryan, the Falcons have rarely seen good production from their reserves. While Dominique Davis was relatively impressive during his rookie summer in 2012, backups Chris Redman and John Parker Wilson struggled mightily after steadier production in previous summers. Since Davis’ debut, we’ve witnessed underwhelming play from the reserves ever since.
Perhaps the issue may have less to do with subpar quality of quarterbacks the Falcons have brought into Atlanta, and more to do with the offensive system.
While Ryan has performed very well in Koetter’s system the past three summers, the precipitous dropoff in production among the backups has been alarming. Pay attention to the passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), two passing stats that correlate the most with winning games.
Preseason Production 2012-14: Ryan vs. Backups
Compare that to the offense of Andy Reid, who has spent the past two summers coaching the Kansas City Chiefs after his final year with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Preseason Production 2012-14: Andy Reid's QBs
It’s a relatively small sample size to draw from, but it’s interesting to compare how big the gap is between Ryan and his backups here in Atlanta versus Reid’s backups which have actually outproduced their starters.
Granted, Reid’s backups have had a lot more collective pedigree than Falcons quarterbacks. Trent Edwards had started 33 career games before arriving in Philadelphia in 2012. That was also the same year the team drafted Nick Foles, who is now the Eagles starter and was among the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL in 2014. And while Chase Daniel hardly saw any playing time as a reserve in New Orleans before joining the Chiefs last season, the fact that he spent four years backing up Drew Brees in Sean Payton’s offense probably was beneficial to his development. Not to mention others players like Tyler Bray, Ricky Stanzi and Aaron Murray entered the league with a bit more fanfare than Davis, Renfree, Wilson or Mathews.
Is Koetter’s system to blame for the Falcons poor backup quarterback play? It’s hard to tell, but perhaps it’s a contributing factor. It probably doesn’t hurt that Ryan gets to work with starters like Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez while his backups have the likes of Darius Johnson, Kevin Cone, Geraldo Boldewijn and Julian Jones as their primary targets.
It’s likely that in a situation where a Falcons backup was to enter a regular season game with Jones and White to throw to, he’d see far better production because he’d have much better options to throw to. But obviously, that is a hypothesis that most Falcon fans would never want to see tested.
It’s probably an oversimplification and a bit unfair to blame Koetter for the poor play of the quarterbacks over the past three years. Certainly there are several other contributing factors in why production at the position has been underwhelming the past three summers.
But one thing is clear in that the Falcons need to get more out of their backups. And whatever the cause, it’s a trend that needs to stop sooner rather than later.