- The Washington Times
Sunday, September 19, 2021

Basking in the glow of a dramatic 30-29 win over the New York Giants on Thursday, Taylor Heinicke was asked by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin if — after that performance — he thought he deserved to be Washington’s starting quarterback for the rest of the season. 

Heinicke, filling in for an injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, didn’t hesitate. 

“I do,” Heinicke told the NFL Network. “And I have confidence I can do it.” 

Heinicke’s response was notable — given that Fitzpatrick (hip) hasn’t been ruled out for the season. In fact, Fitzpatrick is only expected to miss between six to eight weeks, a timeline that would suggest that the journeyman would get his job back when healthy.  

But following Heinicke’s 336-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Giants, the suggestion that the 28-year-old could play well enough to keep Fitzpatrick on the sidelines doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it once did. After all, Heinicke’s yardage was the third-most by a Washington quarterback since 2018. 

Coach Ron Rivera said Friday that he didn’t have a problem with Heinicke’s answer, adding he loved the confidence. “Nothing wrong with that,” he said. Rivera, though, ultimately side-stepped whether Fitzpatrick would automatically become the starter again when healthy — going with the ol’ “one game at a time” cliche. 

Still, this situation is different from the past quarterback injuries that Rivera has had to handle. Last year, for example, when starter Kyle Allen went down, he was ruled out for the season — meaning Rivera knew he’d have to get by with Alex Smith. And when Smith was hobbled with a calf injury late in the season, there was little question Smith would be the starter again as long as he could adequately move under center.  (Smith regained his job in Week 17, though Rivera went to Heinicke for the playoff game after it was clear Smith was too limited).

Even in Carolina, Rivera’s last coaching stop, quarterback Cam Newton was eventually shut down for the year with a nagging foot injury in 2018. The year before that, Newton missed the final two games of the year with a shoulder injury. Rivera didn’t have to make a hard choice of whether to go with Newton or stick with his replacement.

That could change this year — granted Heinicke plays well enough to force Rivera’s hand.

“I really do like how he has matured and grown into the position he has for us right now,” Rivera said of Heinicke. “He has done a nice job. He works extremely hard at it. As I said, there is a lot of confidence and you see the swagger and right now his teammates see it. 

“They recognize it and they’re feeding off of it as well.”

Of course, this could all be premature. Heinicke almost cost Washington a victory with a mind-numbingly ill-advised interception inside the 20-yard line with less than three minutes left. The turnover was inexcusable because Washington was in a position to potentially run out the clock. Instead, the Giants took a brief, late-game lead. More miscues like that from Heinicke and Fitzpatrick will have nothing to worry about.

Heinicke won hearts with his response to the turnover. Teammates praised the quarterback’s composure after the interception, and Heinicke led Washington down the field to set up the game-winning field goal. Heinicke operates well in two-minute situations and didn’t seem fazed by the pressure of the moment. 

The offense, too, has generally been efficient when Heinicke has been in the game for Washington. In Week 1, Heinicke threw for 122 yards in relief and completed 11 of 15 passes. On Thursday, Heinicke’s completion percentage was the same at a much higher volume — completing 34 of 46 passes (73.3%). 

Need another example? Thursday marked just the third time in Terry McLaurin’s career that Washington scored at least 30 points.

He’s been in the league since 2019.

“Oh wow,” the third-year receiver said, told of the stat. 

McLaurin, who caught a career-high 11 catches for 107 yards, said Heinicke did a great job in “controlling the tempo” of the offense. He noted how efficient Washington was in the red zone compared to the Chargers’ game, with the team going 3-of-4 in the area after going 1-of-2 in Week 1. 

Maybe Fitzpatrick would have had the same type of bounce back in Week 2, if he had stayed healthy. Fitzpatrick got hurt in the second quarter of the Chargers game, and so Washington really hasn’t had the chance to fully evaluate how the offense would look with the 38-year-old. 

And maybe Heinicke’s performance will dip as Washington plays better teams — starting next Sunday with the Buffalo Bills (who waxed the Miami Dolphins 35-0 on Sunday afternoon). Washington’s coaches, too, didn’t struggle in training camp to name Fitzpatrick the starter: He easily beat out Heinicke. Prior to that, Washington signed Fitzpatrick a one-year, $10 million deal in the offseason, an indication he was going to be The Guy for the franchise. 

But there is something about Heinicke that seems to energize Washington’s players, as Rivera said.  And if he can keep producing —and winning — at a high level, then perhaps Heinicke was right when he instantly answered Irvin’s question. 

“He’s already ready for his moment,” McLaurin said, “and I love guys who are always ready for their moment, always prepared.” 

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