Taylor Heinicke Credit: All-Pro Reels Photography

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When Taylor Heinicke joined the New England Patriots’ practice squad for part of the 2017 season, he wanted to make a strong impression on his first day. The quarterback pulled up to the team’s facility before 5:30 a.m., vowing to be the first one at work.

He wasn’t. Heinicke soon realized he’d been beaten there by the starting quarterback, Tom Brady.

“He had no idea that they had just signed a practice squad quarterback,” Heinicke recalled last week. “He was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’”

It’s the same question followers of the Washington Football Team had been asking leading up to Saturday’s NFC wildcard playoff game at FedExField. Heinicke, a 27-year-old journeyman quarterback who had last played in the XFL, responded by delivering Washington’s most memorable postseason performance in recent memory.

His effort alone wasn’t enough, as the Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat Washington, 31-23. But with 306 passing yards, 46 rushing yards, and two total touchdowns, Heinicke stepped out of obscurity and went toe-to-toe with a future Hall of Famer. Coach Ron Rivera called Heinicke’s game “gutsy” and said he “earned an opportunity” for the future.

Washington’s unpredictable season ended with the loss, but Washington players heaped praise on Heinicke’s performance. It also raises questions on what the team should do at its most important position.

“That dude plays with no fear, and he’s going to give his playmakers a chance to make plays,” wide receiver and co-captain Terry McLaurin said. “He’s going to extend plays, he’s gonna run, he’s gonna take hits. He’s gonna do everything you ask for a quarterback to do in this league.”

Whether Heinicke is a candidate to be a Week 1 starter next season is up for debate. For now, he showed Washington, a defense-led team that already improved from 3-13 to 7-9 in Rivera’s first season, how competitive and exciting it can become behind a decisive, mobile quarterback.

This was supposed to be Alex Smith’s moment, the final scene of a filmworthy comeback from a grisly fractured leg two-plus years ago. But the team ruled out Smith with a right calf injury that had lingered for weeks, making Heinicke Washington’s fourth starting quarterback of the season. The team released its 2019 first-round draft pick, Dwayne Haskins Jr., two weeks ago after several disappointing performances by the 23-year-old who was selected to lead the franchise.

Expectations for Saturday were tempered due to Heinicke’s resume. He spent last spring in the ill-fated XFL, also as a backup. When Rivera first called to offer a practice squad spot, Heinicke was studying math textbooks, not football playbooks. He put his online college semester on hold, signed Dec. 1, and was promoted to the 53-man roster a few weeks later.

His rawness was the antithesis of Smith’s veteran presence, but his agility also stood in contrast to Smith. Heinicke juked, slipped, and stutter-stepped his way out of a collapsing pocket throughout the game, including twice on a key third-quarter scoring drive. On one play near midfield, he evaded four linemen bearing down on him and scrambled upfield for 13 yards, eluding the grasp of a fifth would-be tackler. 

Four plays later, he rolled left and dove to the pylon for an 8-yard touchdown, cutting Washington’s deficit to 18-16. Heinicke suffered an AC joint separation in his non-throwing shoulder on the dive but played through it without missing a snap.

“In the offseason and during this whole season when I wasn’t playing, I was just speed-training and throwing,” Heinicke said. “I was preparing like I was going to play. So it’s a big part of my game … If something breaks down and I have to run, that’s something I could do. I think it’s a good tool to have.”

That tool is becoming more of a requirement than a luxury. Most top-tier NFL quarterbacks don’t run the way Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson does, but they can stay afloat when defenders break through the line and flee when necessary. Heinicke did more than scramble on Saturday; he used his legs to stay in the pocket, let his target’s route develop, and deliver a spot-on throw.

A quarterback’s escapability also, undeniably, makes their team more fun. When Heinicke scored his rushing touchdown, star rookie Chase Young joined the touchdown celebration and pointed to Heinicke’s jersey for the cameras. All night long, FedExField played a recording of Young inflecting his name—“Hein-ick-EE!”—which bounced around the empty FedExField stands after every positive play. 

It was the most thrilling display by any Washington quarterback all year. That is what the team has been missing for so long: not merely a solid quarterback, but one who can extend plays, elevate the teammates around him, and give fans something to cheer for.

Now Washington enters the offseason with plenty of optimism but one persistent question mark at quarterback, something the franchise has struggled to figure out under owner Dan Snyder. Smith said he’ll take a few weeks to decide whether to return or retire. Kyle Allen, another Rivera connection from Carolina, is recovering from ankle surgery. Heinicke said he wants to return to Washington, and his playoff performance adds a twist nobody expected.

“If you go down the stretch and you look when Alex played and how the ball got distributed and how guys made plays—to me, that just showed what this offense can be,” Rivera said. “That’s what you look for … a guy that’s going to control things and use all the weapons he has. That’s what we saw from Alex. We saw that with Kyle and we saw it with Taylor.”

Not all quarterbacks possess the same natural weapons. In one game Heinicke revealed the key element the Washington offense was missing all year. Whether or not he returns, that won him the adulation of teammates who’d only known him for about four weeks.

“He has that ‘it’ factor,” veteran tackle Morgan Moses said. “You can’t teach that.”

Photo by All-Pro Reels Photography, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.