- The Washington Times
Sunday, January 10, 2021

The parade started as soon as time expired in Saturday night’s 31-23 Washington Football Team loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their NFC wild-card playoff contest.

Washington fans were basking in the glow of the loss and the 7-9 NFC East title. They worshiped at the altar of first-year coach Ron Rivera. They were ready to name their first born after Taylor Heinicke, the quarterback they’d never heard of a few weeks ago.

There was a lot to feel good about, especially when feeling bad has been the way Washington fans have gone to sleep most nights in the last 20 years.

Their team appears to be in the hands of adult professional football coaches. Heinicke’s surprising performance — 26 of 44 (with numerous drops by Washington receivers) for 306 yards, one touchdown and one tipped interception, plus 46 yards rushing, including a touchdown scramble that apparently has taken its place alongside John Riggins’ Super Bowl score — says more about Rivera and his coaching staff and how they prepared this journeyman to face Tom Brady and the Bucs than it does about Heinicke.

This was an XFL quarterback who had bounced around NFL training camps for several years before a desperate Washington Football Team signed him off the street several weeks ago. He had the connection with offensive coordinator Scott Turner, dating back to Turner’s days as the quarterback coach for the Minnesota Vikings. But if Washington really thought that Heinicke could do what he did Saturday night, he would have been here before Dec. 8. If anyone thought Heinicke could do what he did against Tampa, he would have been on the NFL roster instead of taking online classes at Old Dominion.

Sometimes — like when there’s a 100-year flood — football finds a Kurt Warner bagging groceries one week, taking snaps the next and eventually playing in the Super Bowl. It was noteworthy that Warner himself tweeted during the game that he loved “watching Taylor Heinicke compete.”

But most of the Davids facing Goliaths in the league are more like Gardner Minshew — the Jacksonville scrub briefly turned star, now back on the bench.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars, after signing Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million deal in 2019 and then trading him to Chicago last year, are in position after a 1-15 season to draft college superstar Trevor Lawrence.

Jacksonville has been searching for a quarterback since Mark Brunell more than 20 years ago. Even with a great defense the year they went 10-6 and made it to the AFC title game against New England in 2017, they still needed a quarterback.

You don’t want to be Jacksonville. Washington still needs a quarterback.

That is a discussion for the offseason. We don’t even know who will be making those decisions. Rivera is reportedly large and in charge, but there is speculation the team will seek out a general manager, which leaves vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith where?

And what of Bluto Snyder, the Washington owner? Any other friends and family he wants to consult for a new Washington quarterback? What was Dwayne Haskins thinking, watching Heinicke run the offense like a guy who showed up at their headquarters at sunrise for film work?

The good feelings surrounding the loss may be attributed to the sense of calm Rivera brings to the team, a rare commodity amid the aura of self-destruction that has dogged the franichise undeer Snyder. Despite his very personal battle with cancer, the shortened preseason work time and the COVID-19 fears, Rivera never lost control of this team. For the most part, that showed in their play this season, So it would seem that the franchise is going in the right direction, correct?

Stop. We’ve been here before — the highly-regarded coach turning the culture around.

After the 2010 season, two-time Super Bowl winning coach Mike Shanahan took over a 4-12 team and led them to a 6-10 record in his first season — one short of what Rivera accomplished in his initial year and with no NFC East title to show for it. It should be noted that both Dallas and Philadelphia won 10 games that season.

But Shanahan’s first coaching season may have been more impressive than Rivera‘s. He did his miravle work with far less talent.

Shanahan took over a team that had just two home-grown first-round picks on the roster — Carlos Rogers and LaRon Landry — adding a third, Trent Williams, in his first draft.

Rivera inherited a 3-13 roster with six first-rounders, all Washington picks. He added a seventh with Chase Young.

Shanahan’s 6-10 mark included nine games where his defense gave up just 17 points or less. Rivera‘s 2020 squad, with its 7-9 record and a celebrated defense, had seven games where they surrendered 17 points or less.

So what, you say? For those who want to give Heinicke Haskins’ old No. 7 jersey already, Shanahan went into his next season with Rex Grossman, who had played in Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears — a far more accomplished quarterback than Heinicke.

He finished 5-11, and well, you know the rest of the story. Bluto started a food fight in the building, and it all went to hell.

You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan and on The Kevin Sheehan Podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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