A month ago, Taylor Heinicke was studying for final exams to complete his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Old Dominion University. Saturday night, he will start an NFL playoff game.
Steven Montez, an undrafted rookie who spent much of the season on the practice squad, will be Heinicke’s backup, and tight end Logan Thomas, who began his NFL career as a quarterback, will serve as the team’s emergency QB.
The call to start Heinicke was made Saturday afternoon, when it became apparent that Smith’s right leg didn’t recover enough to allow him to execute the offense as the team would need. The issue, according to the person familiar about the matter, is more about mobility than pain or soreness.
The 16-year veteran led Washington to a 5-1 record as a starter but was sidelined for two games because of the injury. He returned last Sunday in Philadelphia to help Washington clinch the division and secure a playoff spot, but the calf strain worsened as the game progressed. The decision to start Smith in that game was made late in the week, too, but by then he had made significant progress in his recovery.
This week, with less time to recover because of the Saturday kickoff, Smith didn’t come close to reaching the same comfort level.
Heinicke was signed to Washington’s practice squad Dec. 8 as the team’s quarantine quarterback on the practice squad, but was activated 11 days later when Smith suffered his injury. In the fourth quarter of the team’s Week 16 loss to Carolina, Heinicke took over for Dwayne Haskins and guided Washington on one scoring drive and nearly completed a second.
“Being able to see what he did in the Panthers game I think really helped me,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “I will say this, it definitely helped his teammates. … It was impressive.”
Heinicke was signed largely because of his experience in Washington’s system. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner was his quarterbacks coach for two seasons in Minnesota and then again for the 2018 season in Carolina, with Rivera as head coach.
This week in practice, he took nearly all the reps with Washington’s first-team offense and prepared as if he would start. Saturday will be his first live action in a playoff game since he entered the league in 2015, and only his second career start.
Should Montez see the field at all, it’ll be his first NFL game action at all.
The good news for Washington is that it is expected to have two of its top playmakers available in receiver Terry McLaurin (ankle) and running back Antonio Gibson (turf toe), who were also initially listed as questionable.
The bad news, of course, is Washington faces the tall task of trying to out-duel Tom Brady and the Bucs, who are averaging 30.8 points a game.
“I think a lot of people perform better when you have something really to play for,” Heinicke said Thursday. “ … I don’t know if this is going to be the last game. … I just don’t know. So I’m trying to enjoy it, give it my all and really soak it in. It’s something special that’s going on here.”