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The legend of Taylor Heinicke

It’s Jan. 9, 2021, and the Washington Football Team is set to face off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Football Team was the higher seed because they won the division, but they were 100% the underdogs of the game. Then, a couple hours before the game, it was announced that the starting quarterback Alex Smith for the Football Team was inactive for the game. Instead, journeyman quarterback Taylor Heinicke would start. As a Washington fan, my expectations were extremely low. There was no way Heinicke, an undrafted player out of Old Dominion University (ODU), was about to beat Tom Brady. Little did I know that game was the start of a legendary story for Heinicke. The odds were stacked against him, but that didn’t matter at all to him. Heinicke played his absolute heart out. That day, I saw a player with less talent but more heart. Was he particularly good in the game? Not really. He threw for 306 yards and a touchdown and also added 46 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground. But he also had a passer rating of 78.4 and an interception. However, if you watched that game, you probably don’t remember that interception. You remember the crazy diving pylon play that apparently separated his AC joint. He played on and kept the game competitive for sure. But in the end, Washington lost 23-31. Still, he put the world on notice. Heinicke had arguably the best game from a quarterback against the Bucs throughout the entire postseason. In the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs offense, led by former Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes, scored just nine points against the Bucs. After one crazy game, what came next for Heinicke?

A couple months later, Heinicke signed a two-year deal worth up to $8.75 million. This was fairly impressive considering what he was doing just a few months earlier. I mentioned that Heinicke was a journeyman through the National Football League (NFL). He was undrafted out of ODU after setting the school record for total passing yards at 14,959 and plenty of other school passing records. No one is particularly close to catching his records. Yet he went undrafted. After that, he bounced around the league. From 2015-2016 he was with the Minnesota Vikings but didn’t get any play time. However, he did meet Scott Turner in Minnesota, who later became the offensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders. Heinicke then spent some time with the New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers and even went to the XFL to play with the St. Louis BattleHawks. His stint in the XFL was short-lived after the COVID-19 pandemic shut the league down. It seemed like maybe his time playing football was over. Then in early December of 2020, he got a call from Washington to come play. At the time he was finishing online final exams at ODU, as he was trying to finish his engineering degree. He got the call because he knew Turner’s playbook, so it would be easy for him to transition into a backup quarterback role. A few weeks after that, he was starting in the Wild Card game against the Bucs. Heinicke went from living on his sister’s couch trying to get an engineering degree to facing off against one of the greatest players of all time in the playoffs. 

For the 2021 season, Washington signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year worth $10 million. So once again, Heinicke was set to be the backup. That position didn’t last long after Fitzpatrick got injured early in the first game of the season. His first regular season start for Washington came a week later against the New York Giants. With less than two minutes left in the game, Heinicke led the team down field to set up a 43-yard field goal. Kicker Dustin Hopkins converted the kick and Heinicke got his first win with Washington. Heinicke started for the rest of the season and was not the greatest quarterback ever. He did get his revenge on the Bucs with a 29-19 win against them in Week 10, but overall, he was relatively mediocre. He threw for a total of 3419 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. However, he also threw 15 interceptions and had a passer rating of just 71.5. It was clear that he wasn’t the true answer for Washington at quarterback. He lacked the arm strength to make big throws. Even with all of this, everyone still loved him. His teammates praised him every week with his ability to extend plays with his legs. At the end of the season, Heinicke proved that he is probably the best backup quarterback in the NFL, but he wasn’t good enough to start consistently. 

In the following offseason, Washington traded for quarterback Carson Wentz from the Indianapolis Colts. I personally did not like the trade because Wentz had built a recent reputation of not being good. However, Wentz had something Heinicke didn’t. Wentz had a cannon of an arm. He could get the ball down the field like Heinicke couldn’t. When asked about whether or not he was going to compete with Wentz for the starting job he said, “You look at the NFL and at the end of the day, it’s kind of a business. If you’re paying someone $30 million and you’re paying someone else $2 million—you’re paying this guy $30 million to play, you know?” Heinicke was a true professional. He was honest and understood what he was there to do. “Carson’s a great quarterback and you see it through OTAs and minicamp. And I hope he goes out there and succeeds. And again, my job is just to back him up. Hopefully, he’s on his deal, help him out in whatever way I can, and if for some reason he goes down, I’m ready to go play.” said Heinicke. Wentz was good in the first week, but his play slowly declined in the next few weeks. Then in a game against the Chicago Bears, Wentz fractured his finger. All of a sudden, it was Heinicke’s time again. Washington was on a downward trend at the time. When Heinicke took over, the team was 2-4 and overall, the team was a mess. They couldn’t score any points and the defense couldn’t stop anyone. But something changed when Heinicke took the reins. Heinicke once again showed how his heart could convert to something on the field. He used this to beat the Green Bay Packers in his first start of the season. In an interview after the game, he said, “I go out there and play like it’s my last game …. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but that’s just how I play. I think that’s when I do my best.” All of his teammates continued to give him that praise. Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin had this to say about how Heinicke affects the team: “I think it’s a lot of what he’s been through in his career as a player and as a person. He plays like it’s his last game every single time. I think that energy spreads throughout this team.” There is just something about the guy that is so difficult to explain, but I think teammate Jonathan Allen puts it best: “He’s just a guy you want to play hard for … When people talk about the ‘it’ factor, it’s kind of hard to explain to someone who’s not really involved in sports. But you look at Taylor, he has ‘it.’ He’s not the biggest, not the strongest, not the most athletic, but he just has ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. He’s just a football player.” After the game, Heinicke talked about how he buys a new pair of Jordan sneakers after every team he beats. His collection was building after that win against Green Bay. 

So, the legend continued. In the next week he led a gutsy game-winning drive against the Colts after being down 10-16 with only 2:36 left to play. Again, he wasn’t perfect. He definitely made some bad decisions, but somehow kept finding a way to win. The team in general was playing better around him, especially the defense, as they continued to improve as the season progressed. In the next week, Heinicke threw a bad interception that led to a Vikings comeback and caused Washington to lose its winning streak. Some people began to once again doubt if Heinicke could actually lead the team to victory. Was the Heinicke legend about to end? Week 10 would determine that. The game was against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles. Everyone predicted Washington would lose the game in what was possibly Heinicke’s last start. Wentz was able to come off the injury reserve the next week and possibly make his return. It was Monday night, and all the pressure was on Heinicke, so what did he do? All Heinicke did was lead Washington to be the first team to beat the Eagles all season. It wasn’t all on Heinicke. The whole team played very well to beat the Eagles, but Heinicke was at the center. My favorite part of the game was when he intentionally took a knee and got hit by two Eagles defenders. Heinicke instantly jumped up and celebrated because he knew what came next. The refs called an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Eagles and that pretty much sealed the victory for Washington. Two days later, Rivera announced that Heinicke would start the next game against the Texans. Heinicke also announced that he not only bought Jordans for himself this week, but also for his entire offensive line as he said, “They’ve been busting their a– all year so they need to be compensated for that. So, I ordered some Js for the starting offensive line this week.” For now, his legend continues. As a Washington fan, I know he isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback. But I do know that he plays with a swagger that I have never seen before, and the team loves to play for him. Will he ever emerge as a top quarterback in the NFL? Probably not. A part of me doesn’t care because all I know is that he’s here now and every week he’s going to do everything he can to stay there and help the team win. For now, I think that’s enough for most Washington fans.

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