- The Washington Times
Monday, November 1, 2021

Week 8 of the NFL season was the week of the backup quarterback.

Four backup quarterbacks — some of whom had almost no previous NFL experience — won games.

Jets backup Mike White knocked off the previous No. 1 team in the AFC with a historically great performance for a first career start. Geno Smith, in his third game replacing injured signal-caller Russell Wilson, led the Seahawks to a blowout win over the Jaguars.

Trevor Siemian replaced injured Jameis Winston in the second quarter and led the Saints to a win over defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay. Winston was diagnosed Monday with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and damage to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, which will end his season.

Cooper Rush, who started his first NFL game for he Cowboys in relief of Dak Prescott, capped off the day’s slate by orchestrating a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter against the Vikings.

But two backup quarterbacks didn’t have similar success on Sunday.

Those quarterbacks?

Davis Mills for the Texans and Taylor Heinicke for the Washington Football Team.

Heinicke was 24-for-39 passing for 270 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

The numbers were fine, but the problem with the team’s offense in recent weeks is its success — or lack thereof — in the opponent’s territory. Against the Broncos, Washington ran 19 plays inside Denver’s 30-yard line for a total of 17 yards, including a turnover.

“I feel like in most of the games, we move the ball well,” Heinicke said after the loss. “It’s not like we’re not getting a lot of yards. I think we’re driving and sustaining long drives. Again, it’s just when we get to that 35-yard line to the 20 for whatever reason we just stall out.”

Teams aren’t just turning to backups at the quarterback position either. On Monday, the Titans announced that star running back Derrick Henry would be getting foot surgery. His injury is reportedly a Jones fracture that will cause him to be out 6-10 weeks. The timeline could allow Henry to return in time for the postseason if Tennessee (6-2) makes it. 

In the meantime, the Titans will be turn to former Vikings and Washington running back Adrian Peterson, who signed with the team’s practice squad on Monday. The 36-year-old will be the oldest active running back in the NFL by nearly five years. He ran for 1,940 yards and 12 touchdowns with the Burgundy and Gold in 2018 and 2019. He played for the Lions last season and was unsigned this year until Monday.

For the first few games of the season for Washington, the Heinicke experiment was a success. He went 2-1 in his first three starts, but since then, Washington has lost four straight. 

In Week 2, Heinicke had his best game of the season — a 336-yard, two-touchdown 

Under Heinicke, Washington has lost four straight after he went 2-1 in his first three starts. In Week 2, Heinicke had his best game of the season — a 336-yard, two-touchdown performance on 74% completion in a 30-29 against the Giants.

Two weeks later, the former XFL signal-caller led the Burgundy and Gold to a 34-30 win over the Falcons, passing for 290 yards and three touchdowns.

In his first three-and-a-half games since he entered midway through the team’s Week 1 game against the Chargers for an injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, Heinicke completed 69.5% of his passes at 8.1 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Since then, however, he‘s completing less than 60% of his passes for an anemic 6.2 yards per attempt with three touchdowns versus six interceptions.

Washington coach Ron Rivera said after the game that he will evaluate the quarterback position during the bye week.

But on Monday, he confirmed that Heinicke would remain the team’s quarterback, dispelling the question of whether he would turn to Kyle Allen, who first played for Rivera in Carolina. Rivera also said Monday that Fitzpatrick, who has been out since Week 2 with a hip subluxation injury, will have another MRI next week. 

“It’s not my decision,” Heinicke said when asked if he thought he should remain the interim starter. “I’m not really going to speak on that because it’s out of my hands. The biggest thing I do is I go in that facility every single day and I give it my all, and that’s all I can do.”

Most backup quarterbacks who get opportunities fail. But the few who succeed pique the curiosity of fans and coaches alike: What if the answer is as simple as the guy standing over there holding the clipboard?

Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Tony Romo were all once unheralded benchwarmers. But so were Matt Flynn and Matt Cassel — two backups who enjoyed brief successes that led to big contracts — and big expectations — neither could live up to.

Flynn turned two outstanding starts backing up Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers — one in 2010 and the other in 2011 — into a three-year, $19-million contract with the Seattle Seahawks, then couldn’t win the starting job.

Cassel went 10-5 with the New England Patriots when replacing an injured Brady in 2008 and turned that success into a six-year, $63-million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. He played 10 more NFL seasons after his year in New England as a high-end backup, netting him $65 million in earnings. 

Like the legends and the flameouts who came before, Heinicke is trying to turn his playing time as a temporary starter into something more permanent. But he’s running out of time. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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