Terry McLaurin has played with nine starting quarterbacks since Washington drafted him in 2019, and he has caught at least one pass from eight. The team has changed starters 13 times during his career, and each season, he has opened with a different one.
For Washington, a season without a quarterback change is an anomaly. This century, only Jason Campbell in 2008-09 and Kirk Cousins in 2015-17 started every game in a season.
Sure, the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos have experienced similar turnover. But there are few if any players as well versed in quarterback swaps as McLaurin, a third-round pick who has become the leading receiver for the Commanders.
This week, McLaurin has to adapt yet again because of a finger injury to starter Carson Wentz. But for the first time, the change should provide a bit of comfort.
Taylor Heinicke, who filled in for Alex Smith in the Commanders’ 2020 playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick when he was hurt in the season opener in 2021, will step in once more for Washington and start in place of Wentz. It could be just for Sunday, when Washington hosts the Green Bay Packers. It will probably be longer as Wentz recovers from surgery to repair the broken ring finger on his right (throwing) hand.
“This is probably one of my better transitions because I’ve had more work with Taylor than I did Carson,” McLaurin said. “So I know what Taylor does and likes to do, and I think him and I have formed a really good connection.
“Really, the difference is just, like, the routes on air, the same concepts that we run, he may look at it like it’s part of the progression differently, or he may see the leverage differently than Carson would. I think those are two little things that you’ve got to try to iron out, and it’s hard to iron out all of them in a week.”
McLaurin’s 15 games with Heinicke as his starter last season are the most he has had with any NFL quarterback — and it would have been 16 had the coronavirus not swept through the team and prompted Washington to sign Garrett Gilbert off the New England Patriots’ practice squad. In his first season as a starter, Heinicke orchestrated four game-winning drives and was a part of three fourth-quarter comebacks. He and McLaurin connected for five touchdowns, 43 passing first downs and 962 yards.
“The continuity is important,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “And for a guy like Terry … the rapport he has and he develops with guys is tremendous because of his athletic ability and his skill set. … We’ve got to make sure he’s involved at the very beginning of what we’re trying to do because he’s such a dynamic guy.”
Heinicke’s familiarity with the system continues to help. He started his career as an undrafted player in Minnesota, where offensive coordinator Scott Turner was the quarterbacks coach. Heinicke joined Turner in Carolina before they reunited again in Washington.
Rivera has said Heinicke’s experience gives Washington an extra coach of sorts on the sideline.
“Today we had a route out there, and one of the guys could have done something a little different, and Taylor right away explained it to him,” Rivera said. “ … He’s got a very good knowledge of it. And you saw it during the regular season when he was the backup going up to players and explaining certain things to them. He’s very solid in this.”
Heinicke believes the comparison is fitting.
“It’s a cool feeling when you have guys come up to you and [ask] you: ‘Hey, what did you see here? What can I do to help you guys out?’ Stuff like that,” he said. “And it means a lot to me. It means they trust me.”
He added: “We have some young tight ends in there that sometimes get confused. The playbook’s kind of tough to learn, so whatever way I can help them out, I’ll do it.”
The transition will require some adjustment to the play calls so that they are better suited to Heinicke’s skill set. Heinicke and the young pass-catchers, including wideout Jahan Dotson and tight end Cole Turner, must adjust to one another, too. And in the running game, the addition of Brian Robinson Jr. and the new starters on the interior offensive line will offer Heinicke a different look from last season. But a change of any sort often can jump-start a team in the doldrums.
Heinicke lacks Wentz’s size and arm strength but is mobile. He can extend plays with his feet and evade pressure when the pocket closes in on him. He also excels in play action, which the Commanders have struggled with this season.
In Heinicke’s 15 starts last season, Washington led the league with a 60.3 total offensive expected points added and ranked 10th with an average of 8.1 yards per play in play action. Through six games this season, the Commanders are among the worst play-action teams in the league, ranking 32nd in total offensive EPA (-14.1) and 28th in yards per play in play action (6.0).
This past offseason, Heinicke worked on his mechanics and footwork to improve the velocity on his throws. He spent time in California with Adam Dedeaux, a private quarterbacks coach who also works with Wentz. But his most significant improvement probably came from his 15 starts, reps he couldn’t have otherwise replicated on a practice field.
Heinicke said he reviewed a lot of film from his play last season and believes he’s “head and shoulders above” where he was then.
For McLaurin, experience and comfort with his latest quarterback breed confidence.
“I know we’ve had some quarterback changes over the years, but having a guy that you have worked with, that the receiver group has worked with, that makes for a smooth transition,” he said. “I think his ability just to extend plays is really big for us. The heart … he plays with, I feel like a lot of our guys galvanize behind that, and I know he’s going to give us a good chance to be successful this weekend.”