“Being the new starting guy, I felt like I needed to get in front of the team a little bit,” Heinicke said Tuesday. “So I went in there and said a couple of words that I probably shouldn't say right now about the Giants. Hopefully it got the guys fired up and ready to play for Thursday.”
Heinicke’s job is, for now, a temporary position. But for Washington, the labels “starter” and “backup” are often interchangeable.
In the nine months since he signed to Washington’s practice squad, Heinicke has gone from a little-known quarterback living at his parents’ house while completing his degree in mathematics to something of a football cult hero. He won over fans with his gutsy performance in last season’s playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, throwing for 306 yards and a touchdown and diving to the pylon for another score, and during his relief appearance in Sunday’s loss, he had a crowd of nearly 50,000 at FedEx Field chanting his name.
“I just remember him coming in, we signed him as a quarterback free agent, and I was like, ‘Dang, who is that little guy?’ ” said Washington defensive end Chase Young, who helped fuel the legend of Heinicke with his sideline call of “Hein-ick-EE” following a touchdown in the playoff game. “And then that one game, he came in and got to slingin’ it. You’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, he can go.’ Taylor, he’s just a winner.”
Washington entered the 2021 season with its hopes pinned on stability. It signed a 16-year veteran in Fitzpatrick to not only improve an offense that ranked among the league’s worst in many statistical categories but also to help its many young and relatively inexperienced players develop. But Thursday night when Washington hosts the New York Giants for its first divisional game, Heinicke will become the team’s ninth regular season starting quarterback since the start of 2018, more than any team in the league in that span.
Over the past two decades, Washington’s quarterback carousel has been its lone constant: Free agents sign, veterans are traded, rookies are drafted, and yet the music plays on and the wheel keeps spinning, with no sign of an ending. Even as Washington dives deeper into its rebuild under Rivera, the team has been unable to escape turnover at the position.
“Yeah, it can be challenging,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “It’s human nature to kind of get frustrated at times, but at the end of the day, the first thing that comes to my mind is you have no excuses.”
McLaurin, who was drafted in 2019, has caught a pass from seven players in his career, including one from tight end Logan Thomas — who used to be an NFL quarterback. Only one other player in that span has at least one catch from as many passers on the same team: Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant, whose team has been in quarterback purgatory since the retirement of Peyton Manning.
But Washington’s QB quandary is decades in the making:
- Since 2000, 23 quarterbacks have started at least one game for the team and, for a multitude of reasons, only four of them had winning records: Todd Collins (3-0), Alex Smith (11-5), Brad Johnson (7-4) and Tony Banks (8-6).
- Washington has had a different starter in 14 of its past 22 season openers, and only three of those — Jason Campbell (2007-09), Robert Griffin III (2012-14) and Kirk Cousins (2015-17) — started consecutive openers.
- And since Cousins’s last season here, 2017, no Washington quarterback has come close to playing a full season. Smith, whom the team traded for in 2018, came the closest, but in his 10th start that year he suffered a devastating leg injury. Since then, Washington has changed starters 15 times in the regular season (including its latest move to Heinicke), often cycling through the same players multiple times because of injury, poor performance or roster changes.
Yet as Washington hands the keys to Heinicke for a second time, Rivera and his players, at least publicly, have shown little concern. Heinicke has earned their respect, they say, with his play against the Bucs and in relief of Fitzpatrick on Sunday. And his familiarity with the coaches, the system and its players could make for an easier transition.
“It's always an adjustment when you play with multiple quarterbacks, but I think the nice thing about it is I've played with both Taylor and Kyle [Allen] now,” McLaurin said. “They both have experience in big games and big situations, and I've been having the opportunity to work with them throughout the offseason, too. … But you still got to make sure you're on the same page throughout the week, because obviously each quarterback is different.”
McLaurin described Heinicke as “a gamer” and praised his preparation and toughness. Young called him “a baller” who never appears rattled in pressure situations.
And Rivera has expressed confidence in a player he has started only twice, once with the Carolina Panthers.
“Maybe it’s the being at home, taking classes and coming in and playing well,” Heinicke said. “I don’t know. All I know is when I go out there and I’m excited to be out there, it’s been a dream of mine, and I want to go out there and play some good football and win games. So maybe that’s it. I just try and go out there and give the guys some energy and hopefully go get a win.”
But neither Heinicke nor Allen has been regarded as a long-term starter in the NFL, and their past stints as starters in Washington and elsewhere have ended in injury. With an offense that features many rookies and newcomers, the challenge of developing players may only get harder.
“We make sure, especially during training camp, that everybody gets an opportunity to work with a different group. If you’re a third-string guy, we’re going to play with the twos. If you’re a two, we’re going to play with the ones,” Rivera said. “ … That’s how you build cohesiveness. That’s why having Taylor come in, everybody says, ‘Wow, are you concerned?’ No, I’m not concerned because he has done it with that group of guys. … So for now, there’s confidence, but we’ll see how things go on Thursday night.”
And afterward? Perhaps the carousel spins again.