ASHBURN, Va. — The regular guy who turned into the Washington Commanders’ starting quarterback — for now at least — exited the news conference through a side door excited about beating his boyhood team and also for what came next: a chance to buy another pair of sneakers.
Earlier this year, Taylor Heinicke stood near a putting machine in the locker room and shyly smiled when discussing his new golf clubs. For the first time in his life, the 29-year-old Heinicke could purchase something that might be standard for many NFL quarterbacks: custom-made clubs. In that moment, Heinicke looked like someone who understood his good fortune, almost blushing as he said the words “custom made.”
“He’s like a normal dude,” Commanders right tackle Sam Cosmi said.
And that’s a big part of Heinicke’s appeal to his teammates as well as the fan base.
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There’s a long list of what he isn’t: a strapping, big-armed quarterback with an impressive résumé. That’s why Washington (3-4) aggressively pursued a new starter in the offseason, trading for Carson Wentz, who has those attributes. It’s why Heinicke said this summer he understood why Washington made the trade and that he accepted his role as a backup.
With Wentz on injured reserve nursing a fractured right ring finger, Heinicke will make at least three more starts, including Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox). Beyond that?
“This is about playing one game at a time,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said, “when we get to that position, then I’ll deal with it.”
Heinicki’s story remains well told, that of the young man sleeping on a couch at his sister’s house when Washington called in December 2020. The undrafted free agent out of Old Dominion University in 2015.
But there’s also a list of what Heinicke adds: a guy whose jersey will always be muddy or grass-stained when playing outside; someone who ignores bad plays to rally late and who can inspire teammates.
“It is an underdog mentality,” Rivera said. “It’s the way he plays. He plays all out. And the legend grows when you dive at pylons and do what he did. I mean, you get guys to rally and people love that. But the underdog mentality I think is what people really gravitate towards.”
Heinicke celebrated his sixth win in his last nine starts after helping the Commanders beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
In three of his last four starts in 2021, Heinicke posted a total QBR of less than 10. Sunday, it was 39.9, which ranked 22nd for the week.
Yet, Washington has won six of the past nine games started by Heinicke. During that stretch, the Commanders have beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and quarterback Tom Brady), Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson), Las Vegas Raiders (Derek Carr) and, of course, the Packers (Aaron Rodgers).
“It’s not pretty,” Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said of Heinicke’s style, “but it is gritty.”
In some ways there’s mystery to Heinicke’s game. One game, he’s diving for the pylon to complete a touchdown run in a playoff loss against Tampa Bay. Another game (Sunday), he’s diving near the pylon at a defender who intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. He has thrown 16 interceptions in his past 17 starts.
Nobody is proclaiming Heinicke as the savior. The reason the Commanders pursued another quarterback so aggressively last offseason hasn’t changed: Heinicke is viewed as a high-end backup and low-end starter. There’s also still a belief that Wentz can play much better once he’s more acclimated in the offense.
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But if Washington has a chance of remaining in the playoff race before Wentz can return, it’ll be based in large part on Heinicke.
“I always tell people he is fricking fun to watch. It’s a good time being his teammate,” Washington punter Tress Way said. “You never know what you’ll get with him because he can make these crazy plays and have you on the edge of your seat, so it is some sheer entertainment at times.”
Sunday, that edge-of-the-seat madness included a pick-six for the Packers and a Heinicke fumble returned for a touchdown that was nullified by a penalty. And there were a couple other near-misses in the first half. But, on the series after the interception, Heinicke threw a perfect 37-yard touchdown pass to Terry McLaurin.
Later in the game, facing a pivotal third-and-9 with 2:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, Heinicke was being leveled when he threw a deep out to McLaurin. A picture captured Heinicke with his eyes closed as he unloaded the ball. McLaurin had not yet cut at the top of his route. But after he did, McLaurin aggressively went after it and made the 12-yard catch. Other times, Heinicke eludes the rush thanks to an, at times, slippery style.
“Taylor has a lot of energy in the way he approaches playing this game of football and you can just tell he plays free spirited,” McLaurin said. “I think it’s a lot of what he’s been through in his career as a player and as a person. He plays like it’s his last game every single time.”
McLaurin said that energy permeates throughout the team. Heinicke appreciates that sentiment.
Taylor Heinicke hasn’t lost sight of what it meant to him as a kid when he was seeking autographs or a picture from his favorite players growing up. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
“I just try and be my authentic self and go out there and play my best ball and if that brings out the best in everybody else, then great,” Heinicke said. “Terry said after the game, ‘He goes out there and plays it like it’s his last game he’s ever going to play.’ I think that sometimes rubs off on people and they want to kind of match that energy. So, if that’s something added to help the team out, it’s great.”
He adds that, plus more.
“Everyone has a bad play,” Leno said. “But when you have the ability to bounce back, it just shows resiliency, and that’s what it’s all about. … There’s something you just love about him every time he steps on the field. We always talk about his story, that he was out of the league two years ago. For someone to literally be on the couch and understands where he came from and plays every play like it’s his last, you have to appreciate that — especially at the quarterback position.”
For many, whether coaches or teammates, it came back to the word Leno used: grit. Others feed off it, getting an energy boost. Heinicke hasn’t lost sight of attending an Atlanta Falcons training camp as a boy, seeking autographs or a picture, and what it meant to him. He plays with that in the back of his mind.
“It’s kind of been my story growing up,” Heinicke said. “I’ve always been told I was too small, not strong enough arm. So, I have to find something within me to make the leap, and the grit has been carrying me for a long time. It’s definitely a big part of my game.”
But he’s not about playing angry about what others say.
“I don’t care about the doubters,” Heinicke said. “I don’t care what they have to say. I care about the people who believe in me and I want to prove them right.”
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Another part of his game: connecting with players. It’s natural for Heinicke. He’s a presence in the locker room, almost always seated in front of his locker talking with others in his area — the running backs, other quarterbacks. As he walks past a cornhole game in the middle of the locker room, he stops to ask who’s winning; it’s a little exchange but another way to connect.
“He has relationships and friendships with everyone in this locker room,” Way said. “That speaks a lot to him and how we view him and, more importantly, how he views himself with that humility.”
Heinicke made a name for himself during the 2020 season when he was signed to the Commanders’ practice squad in early December and started his first game against the Bucs in the playoffs. Players such as McLaurin and defensive end Chase Young embraced him. Young would point to the name on the back of Heinicke’s jersey.
“He has a good last name,” Cosmi said. “That helps him. Taylor Heinicke. It just flows.”
But they also like that his approach didn’t change after he became more well known and better paid. Heinicke signed a two-year deal worth up to $4.75 million in 2021. It’s good money, but there are 33 quarterbacks with bigger salary-cap hits this season than his $3.625 million.
Heinicke also receives a $125,000 bonus after every win. He’s not hurting for money. He’s just in a different neighborhood compared to many quarterbacks. That’s why he displays joy when purchasing his Jordans after every win. At his news conference Wednesday, he plopped his legs up on the table to display his new sneakers, beaming proudly.
“I’d be geeky about that, too,” Cosmi said. “You get to the point where you make so much money, stuff like that isn’t nearly as exciting. He didn’t come into this league with a big contract. He had to work towards it. It’s an accomplishment.”
On his weekly radio hit with 106.7 The Fan, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said Heinicke had the “it” factor. Way agreed.
“No one knows how to describe it, that’s why it’s the ‘it’ factor,” Way said. “That’s Taylor Heinicke. It’s wheeling, dealing, running around. I always tell people he is frickin fun to watch. It’s a good time being his teammate.”