Taylor Heinicke was not able to draw up a famous win for Washington on Saturday, but the quarterback studying for an engineering degree may have laid the foundations for his future in the NFL.
Heinicke threw for 306 yards and a touchdown, as well as rushing for 46 yards and a further score, in a 31-23 playoff defeat for the NFC East champions to the Buccaneers.
Those stack up as impressive numbers for someone who was not even meant to be playing in the NFL wild-card game.
Alex Smith had steered Washington to the divisional title in Week 17, yet he failed to overcome a calf injury in time to start against Tampa Bay.
With their first option ruled out, Washington turned to a 27-year-old they had only signed to their practice squad in early December, an undrafted quarterback who had spent time with four other teams in the league and who had previously thrown a grand total of 58 pass attempts in his NFL career.
The new addition did catch the eye when coming in to replace the underperforming Dwayne Haskins, Washington’s first-round pick in 2019, in the fourth quarter of a Week 16 defeat to the Panthers. Still, this was different. This was the playoffs. This was a game against Tom Brady. This was in prime time.
While there was no fairytale result for the underdog in the end, Heinicke emerged as the headline story from the opening day of the postseason.
His performance made him just the third quarterback to have at least 300 passing yards and 40 rushing yards in a playoff debut, a feat previously achieved by Daunte Culpepper and Tim Tebow (who both won, by the way).
“I have nothing but respect for No. 4,” Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said of his quarterback after the loss. “The way he came in and handled his business on a moment’s notice when we found out that Alex wasn’t going to be able to go. He was just prepared for the moment. That’s what this league is about, being prepared for your moment.”
So, what’s next for the new hero? Heinicke is set to become a free agent but made clear in the aftermath that he would like to be back with Washington. The franchise ended the Haskins experiment considerably early by releasing him last month and while Smith is still under contract, he will be 37 by the time the next regular season begins.
Head coach Ron Rivera, who described his quarterback’s display as “gutsy,” would not be drawn into laying out the team’s plans for the future in the immediate aftermath.
“We’ll see what happens. I was just very proud of what he did, coming out and competing the way he did and helping us get where we are today,” Rivera, who had previously worked with Heinicke with the Panthers, told the media.
2 players who were 6th round picks or later (including UDFA) had 250+ pass yards and a rush TD in their first career playoff start in the Super Bowl era
Tom Brady in the 2001 Divisional Round vs OAK
Taylor Heinicke (vs Tom Brady) in the 2020 Wild Card round
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 10, 2021
There may be alternative options elsewhere too, considering plenty will have seen what Heinicke produced against the Bucs. At the very least, he profiles as a solid backup in a sport where they are coveted — teams are willing to pay to have a reliable understudy waiting in the wings.
“I’m proud of myself and I’m happy that coaches believed in me and gave me the opportunity. Hopefully I can do it again next year,” Heinicke said.
“I want to be in the NFL, I want to keep playing ball. It’s a dream of mine and [I will] keep working towards it.”
Heinicke should get his wish to keep playing, whether that be in Washington again or somewhere else.