4th and Inches: The Legend of Taylor Heinicke

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | DFP Staff

It’s hard not to root for Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke.

Heinicke plays football with the wow factor of Patrick Mahomes and the underdog mentality of 2001 Tom Brady. While he lacks the talent of those two greats, Heinicke brings something to the NFL that neither provides –– and it’s hard to put what that is into words.

The Old Dominion University product started his professional career as a backup quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings after going undrafted in 2015. Heinicke never saw action with the Vikings and the New England Patriots signed him to their practice squad in September 2017.

However, the Patriots released Heinicke less than a month later.

The Houston Texans signed Heinicke in November 2017, but he only threw one pass as a Texan. Heinicke got his first career start in the 2018-19 season with the Carolina Panthers and played in six total games as a Panther.

After bouncing around the league for some time, Heinicke joined the Xtreme Football League in 2020. However, Heinicke lost the quarterback competition and was named the backup quarterback for the Saint Louis BattleHawks.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ended the XFL season, Heinicke lived on his sister’s couch while completing a graduate degree in math.

Heinicke’s football career was ostensibly finished until Washington called his number.

Ron Rivera, in his first year as Washington’s head coach, struggled to find a dependable quarterback. However, Rivera was familiar with Heinicke from his tenure as Carolina’s head coach.

The Commanders signed Heinicke as an emergency quarterback in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the league.

Heinicke’s first start for Washington was a playoff game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although the Commanders lost, Heinicke’s electrifying performance shocked the league and earned him a spot on Washington’s roster.

In the 2021-22 season, Heinicke started 15 games for the Commanders after Ryan Fitzpatrick, acquired in free agency, suffered a season-ending injury in the first quarter of Washington’s Week 1 matchup. Heinicke led the team to a 7-8 record as a starter and the team missed the playoffs.

During the 2022 offseason, the Commanders traded for quarterback Carson Wentz in hopes that he would lead the team to success. Heinicke was once again demoted to a backup role.

Wentz got off to a rocky 2-4 start before suffering an injury in a Week 6 win against the Chicago Bears –– thrusting the spotlight back on Heinicke.

The Commanders are 5-1 since Heinicke took over the starting role this season. His only defeat was a 20-17 loss to the 9-2 Minnesota Vikings in Week 9.

The 29-year-old also led perhaps the biggest upset in the NFL this season when the Commanders defeated the previously undefeated Philadelphia Eagles in Week 10.

Heinicke might lack superstar talent, but he’s captivated the locker room with his moxie and charisma. Linebacker Cole Holcomb is one of many players to publicly praise Heinicke.

“He’s got that dog in him,” Holcomb told reporters following Washington’s Week 7 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Heinicke is admired by football enthusiasts beyond the Washington fan base. He recently went viral for his post-win tradition of buying Air Jordan shoes in the color of the team he defeats. Heinicke wore green and yellow Jordans to the press conference the day after Washington defeated Green Bay.

His popularity among his teammates and ability to win games likely influenced Rivera’s decision to name Heinicke the starter for the remainder of the season.

The Commanders’ thrilling Week 12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons elevated them to 7-5, the franchise’s best record in five years. Washington also replaced the Seattle Seahawks as the seventh seed in the NFC and would hold a playoff spot if the season ended today.

Unfortunately for Washington, the season doesn’t end today. However, Heinicke is leading the Commanders on one of the hottest winning streaks — with six wins and one loss since Week 6 — in the league.

The Commanders are also expected to gain a massive boost to their already stout defense when defensive end Chase Young returns from an ACL tear he suffered last season. Young is a former Defensive Rookie of the Year and a dominant force on the defensive line.

Although Young was elevated to the 53-man roster, the exact date of his season debut is still unknown. Young might compete in Washington’s Week 13 matchup against the New York Giants, but Rivera has yet to make a definitive decision.

Defensive linemen Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat are all performing at an elite or near elite level. When Young returns, Washington’s defensive line has the potential to be the most dominant positional group in the league.

With Washington’s defense looking as strong as it’s been in years, the onus is on the Heinicke-led offense to lead the Commanders to the playoffs.

In his career, Heinicke has struggled with his decision making. He has improved at playing conservative football, but he still throws the occasional errant pass that could cost Washington a win.

The Commanders have talent littered throughout their offense. Wide receivers Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson form one of the most dynamic receiving trios in the league. Running backs Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson Jr. are building a dominant force in the backfield.

If Heinicke continues to limit his turnovers, especially in crucial moments, Washington has the potential to make noise in the NFC.

While they aren’t the most talented team in the league, Washington has the grit and determination required to win games in the NFL.

In a playoff format that only requires one win to advance, the tenacious, “never-give-up” attitude of Heinicke and the Commanders can propel them into a deep and potentially league-shocking playoff run.

Originally Published by The Daily Free Press on March 20, 2023

Link to original article here

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