Perspective | The Taylor Heinicke experience is nerve-racking, but it’s giving Washington a chance

Perspective: The Taylor Heinicke experience is nerve-racking, but it’s giving Washington a chance

12/6/2021 6:27:00 AM

Perspective: The Taylor Heinicke experience is nerve-racking, but it’s giving Washington a chance

The play of Washington's quarterback alternates between thrilling and disastrous, but it's been good enough to lead his team on a four-game winning streak.

On Sunday, Heinicke was at his best, at his worst and at his most resilient over four stomach-turning quarters at Allegiant Stadium. He unraveled and almost blew the game in the fourth quarter when he threw a terrible interception into triple coverage. Then, somehow, he calmed down with one final chance to salvage the day. The adventure ended triumphantly, with Heinicke completing four of five passes during a two-minute drill, leading to Brian Johnson’s game-saving 48-yard field goal in

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a 17-15 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.With Heinicke, the line between frustration and celebration is often as thin as an eyelash. But there’s a fighter in him — and plenty of winning traits, too — that makes him a fit for a team still trying to balance player development and competitiveness. He doesn’t appear to be the long-term answer at quarterback, but he has just enough moxie to fend off questions in the interim.

AdvertisementStory continues below advertisement“I love that dude,” linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “Man, Heinicke — he’s a little baller. He’s a grinder. Doesn’t matter what happens, he goes out there and slings it. If he throws a pick, he shakes it off and lets go.”

Four takeaways from Washington’s 17-15 win over the RaidersIt’s rare for a team to take on the characteristics of a temporary quarterback. But it’s happening with Washington. His play, good and bad, embodies this squad. Football players most admire toughness and determination, and those are the traits that define Heinicke’s underdog charm. In victory, his teammates were effusive in praising his ability to bounce back.

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“He keeps showing you why he needs to be our quarterback,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said.Story continues below advertisementHold up: Like, forever, ever?Allen acknowledged he doesn’t get to make those decisions, but for a player who isn’t into delivering headline material, his words reverberated. The locker room sentiment matters. It doesn’t mean as much as a keen front office evaluation. It doesn’t mean as much as the obvious concerns about Heinicke’s limitations. But these players are living in the now, and Heinicke has turned himself into the man for this moment. So if it’s time to get emotional and make a “That’s my quarterback!” declaration, even the skeptics must pretend to have tears in their eyes, too.

AdvertisementIt’s now December, officially late in the season, and the team has something to play for: one of the NFC’s final two playoff spots. When you simplify the objective for Heinicke and his teammates — just scrap until it’s over — they become worthy of intrigue.

Story continues below advertisementWelcome back to the Washington Gutter Climb. Guess it’s an annual thing now. For the second straight year, Coach Ron Rivera’s club has cobbled together a four-game winning streak, defying another feeble start to the season, persisting in ways that past versions of the franchise couldn’t, embracing another gift-wrapped, lowball playoff opportunity.

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This time, Washington has risen from 2-6 to 6-6. A year ago, the team went from 2-7 to 6-7 en route to winning the NFC East with a 7-9 record. It wouldn’t be wise to expect another playoff appearance with a losing record. The bar isn’t as low as it was last year, not with Dallas (next week’s opponent) leading the division at 8-4 and a cluster of seven teams all within a game of each other as they vie for the sixth and seventh playoff spots in the NFC.

AdvertisementAs Week 13 ends, Washington and San Francisco — both of whom have 6-6 records — occupy those last two spots. Philadelphia (6-7) is a half-game back, and the Eagles play Washington twice over the next four weeks. Atlanta, Carolina, Minnesota and New Orleans are 5-7. It’s going to be an epic race of mediocrity.

Story continues below advertisementNevertheless, it should be a fun one. Washington closes the season with five straight games against the division: Philadelphia twice, Dallas twice and a finale against the New York Giants, who are only two games back of the final playoff spot despite a 4-8 record. Washington is close enough to the Cowboys to think the East hasn’t been decided, and if it can win at home next Sunday, the division race gets awfully interesting. But it’s hard to look too far ahead with this team. You should anticipate all of these remaining games being similar to the twin 17-15 wins the players have squeaked out the past two weeks.

In the victory against Seattle on “Monday Night Football,” it was the defense that gave up a ridiculous late touchdown drive, then rallied to stop a two-point conversion attempt.AdvertisementOn Sunday, Heinicke had to compose himself. He started well, completing his first five passes on the first drive of the game and tossing a seven-yard touchdown to Logan Thomas, who made a great leaping snag of a pass that could’ve been thrown more accurately. Less than six minutes into the game, Washington led 7-0, and it didn’t trail until 2:22 remained in the fourth quarter.

Story continues below advertisementOverall, Heinicke completed 23 of 30 passes for 196 yards. He threw for two touchdowns, the last of which went to Antonio Gibson and gave his team a 14-6 advantage early in the fourth. But for most of the second half, as Heinicke grew impatient, he seemed on the verge of implosion. He threw balls late. He threw balls high. He made poor decisions trying to force passes to Terry McLaurin and others against zone coverages. He did his best work Sunday when he took the short passes that the Raiders were giving him. But he wanted the big play.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with his team clinging to a 14-12 lead, Heinicke tried to drill a pass to McLaurin, who had three defenders blanketing him. Nate Hobbs intercepted it. It led to a 37-yard field goal from Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson. Suddenly, Las Vegas was ahead, 15-14, with 2:22 left.

AdvertisementUndeterred, Heinicke went to work. Nine yards to John Bates. Ten yards to Adam Humphries. Twelve yards to Humphries. Six yards to Gibson. It would be a stretch to call the final drive a masterpiece — Raiders safety Tre’von Moehrig dropped what could’ve been another and more devastating interception — but it was a perfect representation of the guts that Heinicke can provide.

Story continues below advertisement“With him, in his moment, he gives you a chance,” Rivera said. “That’s all you can ask.”He’s ideal for a team not quite talented enough to love but with ample toughness and character to appreciate.With five games remaining, Washington is playing for its second straight come-from-behind playoff berth. And Heinicke is playing to start in the postseason once again. He’ll have to play smarter to carry his team there, but when things go awry, you know he won’t flinch. In a playoff race full of teams that can’t separate from the pack, there’s something to be said for one that has a quarterback who won’t budge, even when he’s the one making everyone antsy.

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