While outstretched and in midair, Heinicke collided with Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David. He landed on his left shoulder and said he heard “a click or a pop,” but he popped up to celebrate, to hoist both arms to the sky in the signal for a touchdown, because he had kept his balance and managed to reach the ball to the neon-orange pylon. The score brought the Washington Football Team as close as it would come to the star-studded, heavily favored Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 31-23 season-ending loss at FedEx Field on Saturday night.
And yet on a team with chronic quarterback instability, in a position group in which the rise and fall of each contender this season would have seemed overdramatic in a soap opera, Heinicke still managed to deliver perhaps the most stunning performance of all. The 27-year-old who started this fall by giving up on his NFL dream to return to college found himself, six weeks later, stepping in for Alex Smith, a Hallmark comeback story in his own right, and electrifying a fan base, a national audience and a group of teammates who never could have expected this. He played the fourth quarter with a separated AC joint in his left shoulder, an injury for which players can miss months.
“I didn’t feel good after that," he said. “The next series, I got hit, hit the ground a couple times and decided we should go [in the locker room]. ... But [I] came back out there and gutted it out.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of Heinicke’s performance was that he defied a grade on the curve. He wasn’t good for a fourth-stringer. He wasn’t good for an emergency option. He was good period, completing 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards and one touchdown with an interception that wasn’t his fault and rushing six times for 46 yards and a score. He compelled some of the league’s best past and present quarterbacks, from Joe Theismann to Patrick Mahomes, to praise him on social media. He raised the question of what his role could be next season.
“Gutsy,” Rivera said of the performance. “It really was. He created an opportunity for himself, and we’ll see what happens."
The circumstances of Heinicke’s success seemed improbable even this week. He had not spoken to many teammates because, as the quarantine quarterback, his job was to stay away from everyone. He had never thrown a pass to McLaurin until practice Wednesday. He had never shown the team he could play this way on a big stage because, in his only appearance before this one, he had found success against a soft Carolina Panthers defense late in the fourth quarter.
But Heinicke proved Saturday that he was for real. He showed an uncanny understanding of the offense, and he flashed the mobility Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians feared. Arians told reporters after the game he wished Smith had started. Heinicke’s third drive was a 10-play, 75-yard march to a touchdown that put Washington on the scoreboard.
In the second half, after his touchdown run, Heinicke returned from the locker room with tape on his left shoulder. After the ensuing drive foundered, Heinicke engineered an 11-play, 75-yard drive capped by a pretty touchdown throw to wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. in the back corner of the end zone.
“I can’t tell you why he was on the street before we picked him up,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “He has every quality of a football player that you’d want. … He stepped up on a big-time stage, and I commend him for that.”
After it was over, after Heinicke emerged from the midfield scrum, he was trudging back to the locker room when he felt a hand on the back of his jersey. He turned around to see McLaurin.
“I told him I appreciated him for laying it on the field for us,” the wideout said. “He has a heart of a lion. I told him I’d take him on my team any day of the week. . . . He’s a man of few words, but his actions speak volumes.”
During his postgame news conference, Heinicke chuckled at the absurdity of his journey. He grimaced at the mention of his shoulder, which he said won’t need surgery but “hurt like hell.” He joked about his professors at Old Dominion, to whom he still owes two final exams. But he grew serious when asked what he hoped he proved with this performance.
“Hopefully that I deserve to be in this league a little longer,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side, not playing, being in the real world. It’s not fun. It’s not as fun as this.”