In the past two weeks, as Taylor Heinicke has revived his argument to be the Washington Football Team’s franchise quarterback, he says he has avoided the same trap he fell into earlier this year, the one he said was to blame for a stretch of poor play. Back then, he was looking over his shoulder, worried about being benched, focused on what could be instead of what was.
Now, as fans again wonder whether Heinicke could be the future, the 28-year-old said he doesn’t think about it “at all.” He credited his resurgence to focusing on the present, to balancing his off-script style with the cautious play his coaches want. Heinicke has accomplished many childhood dreams this year — becoming an NFL starter, playing at Lambeau Field, beating Tom Brady — but when asked about the next one, he deadpanned, “Beat Russell Wilson,” the Seattle Seahawks quarterback he’s about to face on “Monday Night Football.”
“I come in here day-to-day just trying to get better,” Heinicke said. “So I feel like if I do that, things will work out for itself, and we’ll go from there.”
In some ways, Heinicke resembles Wilson. They’re shorter, athletic passers who weren’t hyped coming out of college. In Week 2, as Heinicke led a late game-winning drive, running back J.D. McKissic said he saw the same commanding confidence he once had seen from Wilson in Seattle. Those intangibles matter to Coach Ron Rivera, who has said that, when he anoints a franchise quarterback this offseason, he will look for leadership, decision-making and communication.
Sometimes, at practice, Rivera leans into the huddle to listen to Heinicke. Rivera said he has been around veterans who can steady a team, such as Philip Rivers and Alex Smith, and he wants to find someone with the same presence. Even though Heinicke has played like one of the league’s best quarterbacks the past two weeks, Rivera wants consistency. He pointed out the team was inconsistent last year until Smith stepped in.
This season, after Washington stumbled to a 2-2 start, its next six games could be grouped into pairs: ugly losses (New Orleans, Kansas City), incomplete efforts (Green Bay, Denver) and strong performances (Tampa Bay, Carolina).
“Now we have a chance to see if we can get consistent under Taylor,” Rivera said. “Again, we’re not making any decisions [on the franchise quarterback] till everything’s done this year, till we got a chance to really go back and vet what we saw from this past season. [We’ve got to] look at what’s available coming out for agency, look at what’s in the draft. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
In some ways, Seattle, struggling at 3-7, presents a favorable matchup for Heinicke. In others, it could be a challenge: The defense, while mediocre overall, is stout against the run. If Seattle can slow Washington on the ground, if it can disrupt Heinicke’s third- and fourth-down wizardry, it may be able to derail the clock-controlling formula Washington has won with the past two weeks — and force Heinicke to prove he can win another way.
Earl Williams, Heinicke’s longtime skills trainer who was in Charlotte for Washington’s win over the Panthers, believes the quarterback will adapt if necessary. Williams said Carolina was the best game of Heinicke’s career because of his decision-making. He acknowledged the wins over the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Giants were more dramatic, but in terms of craftsmanship, Heinicke was at his best Sunday, looking downfield, reading his progressions, taking what was given.
Williams pointed to the fourth-and-six conversion just before halftime. It got less attention than the scramble Heinicke made to convert a late fourth-and-three pass to tight end John Bates, but it was just as important because of what it showed. On the play, wide receiver DeAndre Carter ran a slant out of a bunch right alignment, and Williams said Heinicke saw the cornerback in man-to-man coverage on Carter step the wrong way, meaning Carter would be open across the middle.
“He was patient, let [Carter] separate, first down,” Williams said. “Sometimes, even when he makes great throws, meaning he completes ‘em, they’re the wrong ones. [He] and I talk about those, too, but there wasn’t too much of those [Sunday].”
Occasionally, Heinicke’s technique broke down, too. Late in the fourth quarter, as Heinicke took a deep drop, he saw wide receiver Terry McLaurin open in the end zone. With the score tied, it was an opportunity for Heinicke to give Washington a commanding lead. But Williams said Heinicke opened his shoulders too much and misfired left, overthrowing McLaurin and leaving the door open for Carolina.
In a way, the little flaw in the impressive game represents what Heinicke must do next. He must try to iron out each wrinkle in hopes of becoming more consistent. Because while he can’t control whom Rivera will choose as the franchise quarterback moving forward, he can submit a strong résumé.