The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taylor Heinicke gives an unstable franchise a small taste of stability

Taylor Heinicke led the Commanders to their third straight win Sunday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

INDIANAPOLIS — For all of their dysfunction, their turbulence, the storm that hovers over even the well-meaning people inside this franchise, the Washington Commanders, in their own way, possess stability.

Don’t laugh. It’s true. They’ve won their past three games because of this elusive trait.

Against Chicago, their advantage was the calming presence of their leader, Ron Rivera, in the middle of his third season, over the Bears’ first-year head coach. Against Green Bay, it was their top wide receiver, Terry McLaurin, highly paid and yet still humble, coming up huge when a playmaker of his caliber has not emerged like that for the Packers this season.

And Sunday inside Lucas Oil Stadium, a small measure of stability showed up, a little late and a bit sloppy, but at the most critical point in the game — and from the most important position on the field.

The Commanders have a quarterback they can count on. Even as their starter will wear a brace over his throwing hand for the next several weeks, they pushed their winning streak to three games — the latest a 17-16 escape over the Indianapolis Colts — with everybody’s favorite backup, Taylor Heinicke.

Back home again, Terry McLaurin leads the Commanders’ rally past the Colts

Heinicke had been picked off, taken two sacks and thrown for only 128 yards when he took the field with 11:12 left in the fourth quarter. At that point, the Heinicke Experience made you want to look away, and Washington trailed a bad Colts team by two scores.

But then, while playing the maestro on a scoring effort that ended in a field goal, Heinicke completed a gotta-have-it pass to Curtis Samuel for 18 yards on fourth and six. And when he took the field again with 2:39 remaining and the Commanders down 16-10, Heinicke played with the tempo that he has been so comfortable with since his college days, leading a nine-play, 89-yard drive that included another fourth-down pass to Samuel and a 33-yard strike to McLaurin.

Heinicke punctuated the moment with a one-yard touchdown run off tackle with 22 seconds left and, waiting until he was back outside the end zone, spiked the ball like a madman.

“Like we say all the time, he’s a competitor. He’s going to show up regardless of what’s going on in the game,” running back Antonio Gibson said. “If he’s having a horrible start — not saying that he had one — but if he’s having a bad drive, he’s going to show up that next play and make it count at the end. That’s all we need.”

While the Commanders (4-4) have some sense of stability under center, the Colts (3-4-1) are still riding a quarterback carousel. And oddly enough, the last two guys they thought would stick each spent Sunday wearing team-issued clothing, the chic look of an inactive player.

Sunday should have been the Carson Wentz reunion game. Wentz played last season — and only last season — with the Colts before team owner Jim Irsay grew fed up with his poor performances near the end of the season and pulled the plug. Now with Washington, Wentz has missed the past two weeks while recovering from surgery on his ring finger.

Matt Ryan, Wentz’s replacement to start this season and the guy who was supposed to clean up the mess, was benched this week in favor of third-stringer Sam Ehlinger, who made his first career start.

Irsay, who never shies from the spotlight, has recently inserted himself as the outspoken owner railing against his Commanders counterpart, Daniel Snyder. On that particular topic, Irsay has made common sense points — yes, the owners shouldn’t wait on the NFL to decide Snyder’s fate. They need to step up. However, Irsay hasn’t been nearly as clear-minded and spot-on with his methodology in stabilizing the quarterback position in his franchise.

If, as French author Charles Baudelaire wrote, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the second greatest has to be Irsay convincing Indianapolis that the Colts were a Super Bowl contender if only they had the right quarterback.

They were not.

Irsay sold a fable.

And — ducks for cover — anyone believing a 37-year-old Matt Ryan was an upgrade over Wentz was all too gullible to buy that lie.

Maybe Ehlinger as QB1 shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering how impatient Irsay can be and how tempestuous the Colts’ quarterback room has been since Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement in 2019. They’ve tried six starters since then. So while the Colts were dealing with the aftershocks from the massive change, back in Ashburn, Va., members of the Commanders defense should have been sharpening their knives.

They would face a quarterback whose sizzle reel consisted almost exclusively of preseason plays. Understanding that, Washington defenders also knew the Colts’ playbook would be drastically reduced for Ehlinger. Their main focus would be staying disciplined and expecting a buffet of short, quick passes intended to get the 24-year-old into a rhythm.

“They’re going to give him the easy [plays],” cornerback Benjamin St-Juste said during the week, “the stuff that can nickel-and-dime us down the field.”

Four takeaways from the Commanders’ 17-16 win over the Colts

At least in the first quarter, the death-by-a-thousand-dumpy-plays seemed to work. Ehlinger was conservative but effective and completed six of his eight attempts for 42 yards. He would operate from the shotgun, use his feet (unlike his predecessor) to get out of the pocket and find a receiver a few yards away. Using this method — and mixing in last year’s rushing champ, Jonathan Taylor — the Colts put together an 11-play, 64-yard drive that continued into the second quarter, striking first with a 46-yard field goal.

But Ehlinger didn’t always look comfortable. And credit that to Washington’s front. In the second quarter, Ehlinger showed his ability to use his legs (unlike his predecessor), even though he did not gain a first down on his own but by a face mask penalty that moved his team to the Washington 13. Two plays later, he thought he had another opening to get out of trouble, only for a crush of Commanders to close in. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen got to him first, and after Ehlinger lost the ball while taking the sack, linemate Daron Payne recovered the fumble.

Overall, Ehlinger played okay in his first start, completing 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards and producing a slightly better passer rating than Heinicke (100.1 to 98.7). Still, Washington has a quarterback who can right himself when necessary. It may not seem like much, but Indianapolis would love to have that luxury.

“It’s just more experience. The more reps you get, the more experience you get, the more comfortable you get,” Heinicke said about his past two games as the replacement starter. “That’s not to say I’m very comfortable with where I’m at right now. There’s a lot to improve on. But the more reps you get, the more comfortable you get.”

On Washington’s final two drives, when it scored 10 unanswered points to come back and win, Heinicke went 12 for 14 for 151 yards. And his best completion of the night seemed as though it played out like one of those cheesy movie moments, at least to McLaurin.

“[Heinicke] does a great job … extending the play, and it was just like slow motion,” McLaurin said. “He saw me, and I saw him, and that ball was up in the air. My eyes were just on the ball the whole time.”

Back in his hometown and playing on the same field where he won high school state championships, McLaurin hauled in a contested ball over cornerback Stephon Gilmore at the Indianapolis 1-yard line.

“I can’t say enough [good] things about Terry,” Heinicke said. “He brings the people in the locker room together, he carries himself in a very professional way, and people want to fight for him. And to see him fight for everyone else, too, it speaks volume. The guy’s a treasure.”

Then, on the next play, Heinicke scored the clinching touchdown. He stalked off the field and back to his sideline, the recipient of all the hugs and all the high-fives. Because he’d wobbled, but he was stable when they needed him.