ATLANTA — It’s a little more than two hours before kickoff and Mercedes-Benz Stadium is relatively quiet, save for the typical game-day chatter between players, coaches, staffers and insiders before the music starts to blare.
Sitting alone on the Atlanta Falcons bench is Taylor Heinicke with a Falcons camouflage hat and a football between his hands.
The other quarterbacks, Desmond Ridder and Logan Woodside, started their on-field warmups but Heinicke was on the bench, seemingly in thought. Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings was his first NFL start with the Falcons in the metropolitan area he grew up in, the place he returned to this offseason as Ridder’s backup.
He asked a staffer the time. Told that it was around 11 a.m., he got up and walked to the middle of the field and started to prepare.
All week long, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith insisted Heinicke was the starter for “this week,” because the Falcons needed to win “this game,” against the Vikings. Long-term plans didn’t exist — at least not publicly. This week would be Heinicke’s week. What happened from there was largely unknown.
After the game, it still is. Smith declined to say who would start against Arizona in Week 10. Heinicke said after the game he wasn’t thinking about it, either.
“Not right now,” Smith said after his team lost to Minnesota, 31-28. “We’ll just have to get back to evaluate it. I’m not going to give you some answer that we haven’t sat back and looked at everything.”
Heinicke, though, made a reasonable case to start against the Arizona Cardinals before the team heads into its bye week. He handled the offense fairly well with only a few questionable throws, including an interception in the third quarter where he threw it well behind his intended receiver and a couple of others which could have been intercepted.
He completed 21 of 38 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown. His completion percentage (55.3) tied with Atlanta’s loss to the Detroit Lions as the lowest of the season. His 9.2 air yards per attempt were the highest average in a Falcons game this year. Atlanta put up a season-high 28 points. And with Heinicke in for the second half against the Titans last week, the Falcons scored 20 points, which is more than they scored in four games Ridder started.
Smith liked how Heinicke handled third downs — 10 of 18 (56%) — and that “he gave us some chances.” Like the past three games with Ridder as the starter, though, the same issues remained: Turnovers. Atlanta had two that helped flip the game: The Heinicke interception and a Bijan Robinson fumble. Atlanta has had at least one turnover in its last eight games, and two or more turnovers in five of its last six.
Heinicke faced 16 blitzes — tied for the Falcons’ season high — and only took one sack. Although almost all of the yardage was tight end Jonnu Smith and the offensive line’s doing, he completed the longest pass of the year for Atlanta with a 60-yard touchdown to Smith which began as a screen pass.
It was, in many ways, a very average performance.
“Pretty clean,” Heinicke said. “There’s a couple of plays here and there that I really wish I could have back.”
Notably the interception and some fourth-quarter passes where he said his feet were “getting a little excited,” so he started throwing passes behind guys.
Atlanta has some big questions to answer now at 4-5. How can the defense stop allowing explosive plays? It allowed six plays of 20 yards or more to Minnesota, a team who had a quarterback in Josh Dobbs who arrived this week and was essentially learning the offense on the fly. How can its offense stop making critical mistakes at critical times?
A lot of that will start with who the quarterback will be.