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The magic of Taylor Heinicke is that he isn’t afraid

Taylor Heinicke led the Washington Football Team to an upset over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Taylor Heinicke has something that might be more important than his arm. His hardscrabble career is beginning to show a signature: He can make big things happen late. That’s a suggestive, promising quality. Ask yourself: When is the last time spectators could be confident that the Washington Football Team’s quarterback would be worth watching in the fourth quarter of a close game? Heinicke is reason to hang around and hope.

Heinicke has graduated, passed the stage of charming fluke and journeyman legend, and the quaint stories about how he was living on his sister’s couch will die away now, because he is a talent. Sure, there are reasons to be hesitant about whether Heinicke is a “franchise” player — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a hobbled, injury-strafed defense and have given up 65 points in the past two games, and on Sunday Heinicke got away with at least a couple of interceptions that could have happened but didn’t. Still. The clutch throws against the blitz. The spinning accuracy under pressure. The nifty legs. And that . . . thing. The bravado, or whatever you want to call it, the relish for the fourth quarter that can’t be trained or taught.

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There are scores, maybe hundreds, of talented quarterbacks with bigger guns who do not have Heinicke’s poise and combativeness late on big occasions, for whom the moment becomes too much. It’s clear now why Coach Ron Rivera says that with Heinicke on the field, “we always have a chance to win.” He already had two game-winning drives this season — against the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons — and now he adds that monstrous “grown-man drive,” as DeAndre Carter called it, of 10 minutes 26 seconds in the fourth quarter to keep Tom Brady off the field and outperform the seven-time Super Bowl champion. Heinicke can clean up his turnovers, and he can learn to read the field better. But that baller mentality in heavy air traffic under physical pressure, well, football executives search the draft high and low for that. Just listen to how admiring Alex Smith was in an ESPN radio spot Monday.

“I mean, this guy’s only had 10 career starts. He’s still a young guy in that sense,” Smith observed. “But he had total command. He plays with great timing and anticipation, and he is a really, really gifted athlete when he has to be.”

More and more, you go back to what wide receiver Terry McLaurin said about him in September: “He’s always ready for his moment.” McLaurin expanded on that quality during an interview with Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 the Fan. “I think the number one thing is just his mentality,” McLaurin said. “He’s not really a loud guy back there, you know, yelling, screaming, super hyped, but it’s almost something you can’t necessarily describe. When you’re a football player, it’s like, ‘Yeah, he has it.’ You know what I mean? You can’t necessarily describe what Taylor has to a T. But it’s just something that you can’t really coach or teach.”

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Back in the preseason, I asked Rivera what the difference was between Heinicke and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He answered with one word: “Experience.” Now, Fitzpatrick is a 38-year-old veteran who has started 147 NFL games. Heinicke, at the time, had started two. And yet Rivera made no other distinction, not in intelligence or athleticism or arm. Which is presumably why Rivera has chosen to add Heinicke to his rosters five times now. He claimed him off waivers in Carolina in 2018, re-signed him not once but twice with the Panthers, brought him to Washington and in February rewarded him with a two-year contract after his valiant performance in the first-round playoff loss against Tampa Bay last year.

If Heinicke has a certain something, it may also be that there is a certain something he doesn’t have. He doesn’t seem to have a fear of failure. A few months ago, I talked with another quarterback who was “always ready for his moment,” Frank Reich. As a player, Reich authored two of the greatest big-game comebacks in football history: As a collegian in 1984, he came off the bench to lead Maryland to a 42-40 upset of Miami after trailing by 31 points, and as a pro in 1993, he led the Buffalo Bills to a 41-38 overtime playoff stunner of the Houston Oilers after facing a 32-point deficit in the third quarter. Reich made a fascinating point about how quarterbacks respond to pressure, one that may apply to Heinicke.

“People think some of us rise up to pressure, when really it’s not that some of us rise up; it’s that a lot of others get weighed down,” Reich observed. “The people who are best in the moment don’t get weighed down.”

Heinicke plays unweighted, no matter the time on the clock. And that’s an invaluable trait. As Rivera has said, “He’s a courageous dude who plays all out.” That’s a contagious quality, the type that a team can build on — maybe even build something big.

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