HOUSTON — By the time he walked into his postgame press conference after Sunday’s 23-10 victory over the Houston Texans, Taylor Heinicke was a lot more subdued. But coming off the field, the Washington Commanders quarterback got emotional when talking about the news that had been out there for hours.
He had officially won the team’s starting job.
“It’s a dream come true,” Heinicke said.
Coach Ron Rivera confirmed after the win that he plans to stick with Heinicke at quarterback in place of Carson Wentz — even when the latter is healthy enough to return from a fractured finger. Reports emerged earlier that the coach had informed the two about the decision, but a switch had been brewing for weeks.
After all, in Wentz’s absence, Heinicke has led the Commanders to four wins in the last five games as they improved to 6-5 on the season. And that simple fact is the main reason why the team is continuing with Heinicke in place of Wentz, Rivera said.
Neither Rivera nor Heinicke elected to say when the quarterbacks were told of his decision, which had been looming with Wentz eligible this past week to return from injured reserve. But Rivera said Wentz’s response was “very good.”
“We’re going to go with Taylor,” Rivera said. “We’ll work Carson back in and see where Carson is in terms of if he’s ready to be the backup. And then we’ll go from there.”
This is now the second time in three seasons that Wentz has been benched and lost his starting job in the course of a season. Two years ago, the Eagles sat a struggling Wentz for Jalen Hurts — a move that caused Wentz to ask his way out of Philadelphia. This time, Wentz lost the gig in part because he was injured, but also because he had done little to guarantee that he deserved to be the starter again when healthy.
Through Washington’s first six games, Wentz led the Commanders to just a 2-4 record. The team’s issues weren’t solely on quarterback play, but Wentz contributed to that poor start with turnovers, ill-timed sacks and a lack of consistency. Wentz did not generate the sort of impact that Rivera and Co. expected when Washington acquired him from the Indianapolis Colts this past spring for multiple draft picks.
Heinicke’s familiarity with the Commanders proved to be crucial. Heinicke not only started 15 games for Washington last season, but his never-quit approach seemed to have a significant impact on teammates. Rivera said players have come to appreciate the way Heinicke operates.
“Whether as a backup or a starter, he’s all in,” Rivera said. “That’s what makes him reliable.”
“Coach Saban used to always say the team decides the starting quarterback,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said, referring to Alabama’s Nick Saban. “Every time he comes in and plays the team rallies around him, the offense rallies around him. You can’t really understand it, you can’t really explain it.”
Heinicke’s play, of course, was a factor in the decision, too. Against the Texans, the quarterback’s stat line — 191 yards on 15 of 27 passing — wasn’t spectacular, but he was again efficient with decisive throws. Crucially, he committed no turnovers — an improvement from even his first four games.
Rivera said with his decision, he wasn’t looking to create a quarterback controversy. He said he isn’t “looking to yank anybody” now that the job belongs to Heinicke, adding he just wants the signal-caller to go out and play. Left unsaid, Rivera could always go back to Wentz if Heinicke struggles again and Washington starts to lose.
But there are incentives for Washington to stick with Heinicke — beyond just his play. With Wentz sidelined, the Commanders are on track to send only a third-round pick to the Colts for next year’s draft — rather than a second-round pick. The terms of the Wentz trade called for Washington to send a second-rounder if Wentz played 70% of the snaps, something he was on pace to do even if he had returned in the next week or two.
“It’s a special moment,” Heinicke said. “It’s something I’ve been working for my whole life. Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is every kid’s dream, so it means a lot to me. I just want to keep this thing rolling.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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