LANDOVER — Taylor Heinicke could hear the sound. After every first down that the quarterback had just converted, the speakers at FedEx Field blasted “HeinickEEE” — the recording of Chase Young yelling the 27-year-old’s name just weeks earlier.
None of this, of course, would have made sense more than a month ago. Heinicke was at home, studying for finals as an unemployed quarterback and bracing for life after football. Who knows if Young, Washington’s star rookie pass rusher, even had an idea of Heinicke’s existence. Most fans certainly didn’t.
But there Heinicke was Saturday, converting first down after first down in a gutsy 31-23 loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Washington’s wild, unpredictable season came to an end.
In many ways, it was remarkable that Washington’s playoff hopes even came down to Heinicke, the fourth quarterback of the season who got the start over an injured Alex Smith (calf).
But if anything, Heinicke’s performance demonstrated just what competent, if not stellar, quarterback play can do for Washington — and what a contender the franchise can possibly become if they can sustain or surpass that level of production in the future.
Heinicke might not be the long term solution at quarterback for Washington, but Saturday’s effort was a how far the team came over the course of a turbulent 2020 season.
Quarterback uncertainty aside, Washington withstood a whirlwind of drama — a name change, a sexual harassment investigation, a coach’s cancer diagnosis, a quarterback’s partying scandal, etc. — and finished the season with something that’s been rare for the burgundy and gold in recent years: Hope.
“I told the guys: ‘We’re headed up. We’re on our way up,’” coach Ron Rivera said. “There are a lot of positives to take from this.”
Fresh off the defeat, Rivera said he felt a mixture of disappointment, sadness and optimism. Disappointment for his team, and the effort that they showed came up short against one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Brady (381 yards). Sadness because of the pending change, with veterans like Alex Smith and Ryan Kerrigan holding uncertain futures. Optimism for Washington’s young nucleus, being able to push Brady and Co.
Washington showed flashes of what the team next season and beyond. The defense, a top-five unit with a ferocious pass rush, helped spark a four-game win streak that was mostly responsible for Washington making the postseason at 7-9. Smith, with his decisiveness and ability to spread the ball around to a variety of playmakers, also was the difference as Washington turned things around from a 1-5 start.
Washington will have an abundance of cap room this offseason. Over The Cap projects them to have $47 million in space, the fifth-most in the NFL. Washington will have space to add another quarterback, with as it tries to lock up All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff.
But perhaps the most encouraging part about Washington’s year was that players grasped the work ethic and preparation that Rivera and his coaching staff tried so desperately to instill.
Cornerback Kendall Fuller, who won a Super Bowl last season with the Kansas City Chiefs, said Washington established the right habits this season.
“I remember my first year in K.C., we lost in the AFC Championship and we used that to give us motivation to learn from it, to help us win a Super Bowl,” Fuller said. “And that’s the same process, same progress that we have got to do from here.”
Washington, obviously, has been in this position before. In 2012, after a 10-6 season, players and coaches spoke about how the future was bright, despite Robert Griffin III tearing his knee on the FedEx Field turf in the playoffs. The same goes for 2015, when players expressed optimism after a 9-7 campaign that the team would only continue to grow under coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins following a playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Nothing is guaranteed. In 2013, Washington went 3-13 — a season that resulted in Mike Shanahan and his staff getting fired. The team went a disappointing 8-7-1 in 2016 and never made the playoffs again in Gruden’s tenure.
If there is a difference this year, perhaps it’s that Washington has a talented, young core with plenty of room for growth. Young, Montez Sweat and Daron Payne — all staples on the defensive line — are under contract for the foreseeable future. So too are Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin, Washington’s top playmakers. Rivera, too, knows what it takes to build an upstart team, having done so with Carolina.
Right tackle Morgan Moses said he was “happy as hell” to be a part of a team like Washington’s in 2020. After contemplating retirement due to the death of his father earlier in the year, Moses said the season was “probably been one of the most fun” in his seven-year career.
As he spoke with reporters remotely, Moses was asked if he had felt like this at the end of a season in prior years.
He took a deep breath.
“It’s been a long time, man,” Moses said. “I’ve said since Day 1, I’ve probably more talented teams, but this group guys, man — I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
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