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Taylor Heinicke’s past two WFT starts are testing Ron Rivera’s belief in his QB

Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke (background) and backup Kyle Allen (foreground) have been the topic of much discussion at team headquarters this week. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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After Taylor Heinicke struggled in consecutive starts, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera appeared to put the quarterback on notice for the final two games of the regular season. Earlier this week, Rivera insisted that, while Heinicke is the starter and will start against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, backup Kyle Allen “probably” will play down the stretch.

Rivera said he didn’t need to play Allen to evaluate him — Allen started 17 games for Rivera from 2018 to 2020 — and emphasized he would change quarterbacks only if it was necessary.

“I don’t want to put anything out there like that,” Rivera said when asked what could prompt him to bench Heinicke for Allen. “But you’ll notice it. You’ll see it.”

On Thursday, others downplayed Rivera’s comments. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner said there’s “no plan” to rotate quarterbacks, and Allen echoed him, saying he’s been preparing “just like I do every other game.”

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In his past two starts, both losses to the Dallas Cowboys, Heinicke has played the worst games of his career. His combined totals in those two games are ugly: 18 completions in 47 attempts (38.3 percent) for 243 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions to go with eight sacks. There have been 480 starting quarterback showings in the NFL this season, and by the advanced metric expected points added per dropback, Heinicke’s performance Sunday night at Dallas was the worst of them all (minus-31.09).

There are plenty of explanations for such a poor performance: Heinicke had just returned from the covid-19 reserve list; it was the team’s second road game in six days; ailing skill players were limited; and the decimated offensive line allowed pressure on 46.2 percent of his snaps, according to the website TruMedia. Heinicke also pointed out the Cowboys’ defense is talented, with “probably the best” line in the league.

“That defense isn't just doing it to us,” he said. “They're doing it to almost every team they play.”

But after watching the film, Rivera concluded Heinicke also “missed some opportunities,” including the first throw to Terry McLaurin, which could’ve been a big play or an incompletion if Heinicke threw it more toward the sideline. Instead, it was an easy interception. Rivera said Heinicke got rattled and was throwing off his back leg. If he had stood tall in the pocket on a few throws, “he’d have completed those.”

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If Heinicke can course-correct Sunday — he was one of the league’s most efficient passers during the four-game winning streak — Rivera seems likely to stick with him. If he shows the form he did against Dallas and continues to hurt the team’s chances, it seems likely Rivera will insert Allen.

In both Dallas games, when Washington faced large deficits and had to throw, Heinicke took some brutal hits. In the 27-20 loss in Week 14, he injured his elbow and knee, and in the second, he departed after taking a shot to the chest from the helmet of Cowboys linebacker Keanu Neal.

Washington is invested in protecting Heinicke. With a $2.9 salary cap hit next season, he would be a bargain as a backup to a veteran free agent or as a stopgap starter while a rookie develops. For context: Even though Heinicke’s statistics this year might not wow — 285-for-440 passing (64.8 percent), 3,052 yards, 20 touchdowns, 14 interceptions — they still would be worth $24.6 million on the open market, according to the website Over the Cap.

“Taylor’s fine with it,” Rivera said of possibly playing Allen. “Taylor and I have had the conversation a long time ago and several times. He understands me. I understand him. I think that what’s important is that he knows what I’m talking about.”

Heinicke, asked whether he was indeed fine with the plan, sounded irked.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I come in every day, and I just try and get better and do my job the best I can. If I feel like I do that, everything else takes care of itself. And if [Rivera] feels like Kyle's a better option at that point, then yeah, that's what it is.”

Turner, asked whether he would have any input in the decision, deflected.

“Taylor’s going to be the quarterback, and then obviously anything can happen,” he said.

Since Heinicke became the starter in Week 2, Rivera has been steadfast in his support. The only time his endorsement seemed to waver was in a postgame news conference after a loss at Denver, when he said the team would evaluate every position, including quarterback, over the bye week.

That evaluation happened, and Heinicke remained the starter. Now, after two poor starts that have shown the quarterback to be vulnerable to injury, Rivera seemed to indicate that evaluation is still ongoing and a voluntary switch, under certain circumstances, could be the move.