“A whirlwind, you know?” Heinicke said afterward, ball cap on backward, a winner for the first time as an NFL starter, as casual as a beer league softball player.
There’s no telling where this Washington season will go, but it lives and breathes and has unexpected life because Taylor Heinicke — unemployed for much of last year, an afterthought in the league — led his team from behind not once but twice.
Look at this line for a Washington quarterback: 34 for 46 for 336 yards with two touchdowns and one interception — all of which we will get to. But examine the numbers, even though the numbers are just a fraction of the story. The striking thing: Why, that looks like a regular, normal, competent stat line for a starting NFL quarterback.
Sorry, did I say starting? I meant winning.
“He’s got that, uh ...” running back J.D. McKissic said, searching for a quality that can’t be described. But think about where McKissic went next, when he described Heinicke on the two-minute drive that won the game.
“He reminded me of Russell Wilson,” McKissic said. “He was calm. ... The only thing on his mind was winning.”
Think about how important this game was to Washington. It doesn’t play another NFC East opponent until December. It was the second straight at home to open the season, meaning Washington’s remaining schedule yields nine games on the road and just six at home. The four participants in last season’s conference championship games await in the weeks ahead.
Odds of an 0-2 Washington team making a playoff run, given all that? Sure, there’s a lot of football left. But there are a lot of obstacles, too — not in small part because Washington’s defense, supposed to be its absolute spine, has appeared supple. Among the quarterbacks that defense is still to face: Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Seattle’s Wilson.
That’s established star power. What Washington has is a kid with not a small amount of moxie.
Who rises Friday morning, pining for Ryan Fitzpatrick?
In Washington’s season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Fitzpatrick made the 147th start of his itinerant career. An injury to his 38-year-old right hip has him on injured reserve and gave Heinicke the chance at his second — that’s right, second — regular season start Thursday night.
He opened the night by going three-and-out on his first two possessions. He took an ill-advised, 16-yard sack. He looked lost on a third-down scramble in which he flung the ball out of bounds — and desperately.
And then he sizzled.
“He’s always ready for his moment,” star wide receiver Terry McLaurin said, “and I love guys who are ready for their moment, who are prepared.”
When has Washington’s offense looked as organized and efficient as it did on Thursday night’s first scoring drive, a 13-play, 90-yard clinic that Heinicke concluded with a zinger of an 11-yard scoring pass to McLaurin? (Good poll question: Who is the best player on Washington’s roster? A) Chase Young; B) Tress Way; C) Terry McLaurin. At the moment, I’ll take “C” over and over and over again.)
That eased the tension at FedEx Field, where the fans might not yet own No. 4 Heinicke jerseys, but operators are standing by. These fans seem ready to embrace his mind-set and mentality.
There’s something here, right? It’s not in the measurables, because if the 6-foot-1 Heinicke had those — the arm strength, the stature, the stuff that makes scouts drool — he wouldn’t have gone to Old Dominion, and he wouldn’t have gone undrafted after he threw for approximately 3 million yards there.
His legend, though, will grow in these parts because of what happened in those final moments of the final quarter Thursday night. With a little less than five minutes remaining and Washington trailing 26-20, it was easy to pin an impending loss on the defense, which couldn’t dominate Daniel Jones and a decidedly suspect New York offense. It’s not on Heinicke to pull out divisional games in the fourth quarter. It’s on the defense to smother the opposition. Two games in, that hasn’t happened yet.
So with 75 yards stretched out ahead of him, Heinicke went to work — and fast. He hit McKissic down the right sideline for the kind of explosive, chunk play that is so foreign around here, for 56 yards. This is his comfort zone because, at ODU, he ran a no-huddle, spread offense. Carry that concept to the fourth quarter of a game that will help determine whether your team has a future? No problem.
“That’s essentially what a two-minute is,” Heinicke said. “I did it for four years.”
On the next play, he found backup tight end Ricky Seals-Jones in the back corner of the end zone. Did you have Ricky Seals-Jones from 19 yards out to take the lead? Great because Vegas wouldn’t have given you odds on that likelihood.
As impressive as that was, what about what came next? Because that was nothing short of Heinicke giving the game away. A quarterback’s job isn’t just to come from behind. It’s to close when ahead. Looking for McLaurin deep in his own territory, Heinicke couldn’t connect. Giants cornerback James Bradberry stepped in front of his throw — a superior play at the worst time. Giants kicker Graham Gano’s ensuing field goal seemed to have left Heinicke with a noble effort in defeat.
“Really had to get my composure about me,” Heinicke said.
Darned if that doesn’t seem to come naturally. He got the ball back. And what we know now: Taylor Heinicke, plus the ball, down only one score, means Washington has a chance.
The final drive that led to Hopkins’s winning kick was both frantic and organized: 11 plays to plod 50 yards, Heinicke completed 6 of 8 passes. None was longer than nine yards. Each was completely necessary.
There’s no forgetting that the brain-dead Giants jumped offside on Hopkins’s first attempt, yielding another chance. But that’s not the takeaway from Thursday night. The takeaway is that Taylor Heinicke is a fun, competent quarterback who’s worth watching. Against the Giants, he saved the season. He now has his moment. Who knows what happens next?