ASHBURN — Taylor Heinicke takes pride in playing as if every game, every snap could be his last. That mantra can be a bit of a cliche for other players, but it works for the Washington Commanders quarterback whose gutsy play has come to define his time in the NFL.
That “play-like-there’s-no-tomorrow” approach might never be more appropriate than on Monday night against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles, because with injured former starter Carson Wentz on the mend, Heinicke could be one bad game away from returning to the bench.
Wentz will be eligible to come off injured reserve this coming week after a fractured finger kept him sidelined for the last month. Coach Ron Rivera has not said whether Wentz would be available for Week 11’s game against the Houston Texans, but said Saturday that the quarterback has begun “lightly” throwing.
Wentz’s potential return looms — though Rivera hasn’t committed to the seven-year veteran taking back the starting job once healthy, only stating that he’ll make a decision “when it’s time to.” The indecisiveness leaves the door open for Heinicke, who has provided a spark to the offense but has struggled to be consistent over his three starts.
What better way to make a case to remain under center than with a statement win over the Eagles?
“Honestly, I don’t think about it,” Heinicke said when asked if he feels he’s done enough to retain the starting job. “That’s one of those things I’ve talked about before …. My role this year was to be back up to Carson and if he went down, be ready to play, and I feel like I’ve done that and I got one more at least and we’ll see what happens.
“But I’m just going out there and trying to win games for this team, and if they want to put Carson back in, great, I’ll be the best backup I can be to him and help him in any way I can. But for me right now, I just go in there and try to do the best I can.”
Statistically, Washington’s offense has been better with Heinicke over the last three games than it was with Wentz over the first six. In terms of points, Washington went from averaging 17 points per game under Wentz to 19 under Heinicke. The latter has helped Washington average more yards (329.7 from 320.3) while having a higher completion percentage (63% from 62.1%) and throwing for more yards per attempt (6.84 from 6.4).
Even outside the numbers, Heinicke’s familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system seems to be a benefit for the Commanders. And crucially, the quarterback can improvise and keep plays alive with his legs in a way that Wentz cannot. Heinicke’s ability on the move has helped reduce the number of sacks the offensive line has allowed.
But Heinicke is not without faults. The 29-year-old threw for only 149 yards in last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings and a fourth-quarter interception contributed to Washington blowing a 10-point lead. Washington’s offense can become stagnant for large stretches under Heinicke, and the unit is performing worse on third down under Heinicke than it did under Wentz.
The Commanders know what they have in Heinicke. His stats this year are remarkably similar to what they were last season when he started 15 games. Wentz’s ceiling figures to be much higher, which is why the Commanders acquired him in the first place.
“Truth of the matter is for the most part Taylor played well, had some opportunity,” Rivera said a day later. “One thing you’d like to see him do is take what’s in front of him as opposed to a couple times he tried to make a big play.”
That criticism can be — and has been — said about Wentz’s game. But over the course of the season, Rivera has mentioned the need for patience when assessing the team’s high-priced quarterback. The coach has stressed that it can take time for a signal-caller to feel comfortable in a brand-new situation. Wentz, after all, is in his first year with Washington and he had played in a different style of offense over his last two stops in Philadelphia and Indianapolis.
It would make sense if Rivera went back to Wentz given the investment. But Heinicke has kept Washington alive in the playoff hunt, and he has the opportunity to improve to 3-1 as a starter this season if the Commanders can pull off the upset in Philadelphia.
Then, the debate may really heat up. Or then again, it could be over.
“You always, you look at everything,” Turner said. “Ultimately, that’ll be coach’s decision.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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