The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taylor Heinicke belongs in the NFL, but he’s not Washington’s QB of the future

Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke watches the replay after throwing an interception in the final minutes of Sunday's loss to the Eagles. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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This conclusion isn’t reached because, with under half a minute to play and 20 yards between himself and a victory, Taylor Heinicke reached back and slung the interception that finally and formally ended the Washington Football Team’s playoff chances. Rather, it is reached after the entirety of 16 games, including Sunday’s 20-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles: Heinicke is not an NFL starting quarterback and therefore not the solution Washington so desperately needs if it’s ever to find sustained success.

It’s really not a knock against Heinicke, who somehow maintained belief he was an NFL quarterback even when 32 teams told him he wasn’t, so he was working on that math degree as he kept working out. There’s a lot to admire in his story. There’s a lot to admire in his season. There’s a lot to admire in his Sunday, when he completed 27 of 36 passes for 247 yards, no touchdowns and no picks — until that final throw.

Get that one out of the way. Trailing by four, Heinicke worked Washington from its own 25-yard line to the Philadelphia 20, in part by completing 7 of 8 throws in that stretch. With 30 seconds remaining, Washington took its last timeout. It had a first down. It had a chance. Heinicke looked to rookie tight end John Bates, covered by Eagles safety Anthony Harris.

On the play, Heinicke correctly led Bates, making sure Harris had no chance. Bates stumbled. “I wanted a flag,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said. There was none. In the end zone, Eagles safety Rodney McLeod dived to get his fingers between the ball and the ground. The pick ended the drive. The pick ended the postseason hopes. The pick, essentially, ended Heinicke’s first season as an NFL starter.

“Looking at it, I thought that was probably one of the best crossing nines I’ve ever thrown,” Heinicke said, referring to the route Bates ran — curling outside around Harris to get a step on him. “I think if he doesn’t trip, he catches that thing, it’s a touchdown.”

Four takeaways from Washington's loss to the Eagles

But he did trip, and it wasn’t a touchdown. That was Washington’s day Sunday. In a way, it was Washington’s season — 6-10, with a let’s-just-finish-it-up game at the New York Giants to end it.

Where does that leave Heinicke? Add up the numbers before getting to the visuals. On the year, he was 312 for 476, a 65.5 percent completion rate that will put him in the lower half of the league. He threw for 3,299 yards — a dream total a year ago when he was unemployed, a meh total over the course of 14 starts and a relief appearance. His 6.93 yards per attempt are slightly below middling. His 15 interceptions will be among the most in the league.

“I thought he did some good things,” Rivera said Sunday. “I thought he gave us a chance.”

That’s Heinicke’s season: More often than not, he gave Washington a chance. But for Washington to have a chance not just at a single playoff run but to make those runs an annual occurrence, the WFT has to do better at the sport’s most important position. Apologies if you’ve read that before.

Don’t be mistaken: Heinicke is absolutely worth having in the building — and he will be staying, given Washington wisely signed him to an affordable two-year, $4.75 million deal after his promising playoff start against Tampa Bay that concluded last season. He has shown he would be one of the most capable, most exciting backups in the league. He’s not a math student. He’s a quarterback. There’s a lot of high praise in that.

It’s also another way of saying this: He won’t be the starter who carries a winner deep into January.

That’s not true just because of the numbers. It’s true for two other reasons, both on display Sunday: his physical limitations and the fact that his best quality can also lead to his worst results.

One play that didn’t even count encapsulates both. On Washington’s second possession of the day, it led 7-0, in part because Heinicke completed his first six passes to six different receivers. Here he was at his best: reading the field, sliding to evade pressure, taking what’s given to him, not forcing what’s not there.

On first and 10 from the Philadelphia 22-yard line, the pocket began to collapse around Heinicke, so he tried to sidestep the pressure. At times Sunday and throughout the season, this has been his greatest asset: a sense of where the rush is coming from, feet quick enough to avoid it and reset, a creativity that is alluring and — at its best — effective.

Here, though, avoiding the pressure merely led to more pressure. The task then: throw the ball away. When he went to do that, though, he heaved it downfield in the vague direction of tight end Ricky Seals-Jones. Eagles linebacker Genard Avery was there to catch a floating gift of an interception.

“That was awful,” Heinicke said, providing spot-on analysis.

In real time, here’s where the physical limitations come into play: I thought he was trying to throw the ball away and he merely didn’t have the arm strength to get it to the sideline. The play was negated because Philadelphia committed a penalty. But it stood out as the worst Heinicke has to offer. He knows that.

“It’s just one of those deals where I’m just trying to make something happen,” he said. “We’ve talked about this throughout the year: There’s that thing where you want to be aggressive and make plays, but you also have to be smart about it. And that was one that you’re not smart about it. Just throw that ball away and live to see another day. And I got bailed out.”

That’s the line on which he lives: He doesn’t have the arm to bail himself out of bad situations, so he has to do so with instinct and intuition. Sometimes, that fails him. Could that be because of inexperience? Maybe — with just 15 starts between the regular season and the playoffs — that’s a factor.

But it’s also important not to treat Heinicke as an intellectual rookie. He is 28 and has spent the bulk of seven seasons in NFL locker rooms and — more importantly — NFL quarterback film rooms. That’s a lot of study, and it matters.

One other bit of housekeeping: After Heinicke was an overwhelmed 7 for 22 in the previous week’s annihilation at Dallas, Rivera said backup Kyle Allen would “probably” play some against the Eagles. When Heinicke went 14 for 17 for 169 yards and the WFT took a lead into halftime, that became a nonissue.

Let’s not make it into an issue going into the season finale against the Giants. Whether Allen plays is moot. We know his arm is stronger than Heinicke’s. We know Heinicke is more creative and resourceful.

What we also know headed into 2022 and beyond: The quarterback who could lead Washington into becoming a consistent, reliable, dangerous winner is not currently employed by the team. Maybe he will be acquired in the draft. Maybe he will be acquired by trade. Those are discussions for the offseason — which is nigh.

At times, the Taylor Heinicke experience kept this season afloat. At times, it was costly. In the end, there’s enough evidence in that intoxicating mix to conclude what Washington has as a starting quarterback, which is something short of what it needs.

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