In fewer than five weeks, quarterback Taylor Heinicke went from preparing for his final exams to trying to help the Washington Football Team win its first postseason game since 2005. With Alex Smith inactive because of a calf injury, Heinicke will make his second-career start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round on Saturday night.
Here are five things to know about the 27-year-old signal-caller:
1. Heinicke had one of the best seasons in Georgia high school football history.
Before Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence lit up scoreboards, Heinicke starred at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Georgia. As a senior in 2010, he threw for 4,218 yards -- then the second-most in state history -- and 44 touchdowns (third most). Other pass-heavy quarterbacks have since pushed Heinicke down the record books, but his special season earned him Old Spice National Player of the Year, which is given annually to the top 50 players in the country. Heinicke was also a part of the reality TV show called "The Ride," which featured high school quarterbacks competing for a spot in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
"It's really cool," Heinicke told the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2010. "I never thought I'd be on TV. It's exciting."
2. Heinicke set multiple FCS records at Old Dominion.
Heinicke chose Old Dominion over Richmond and Georgia State and immediately flourished, throwing for 2,385 yards and 25 touchdowns compared to just one interception. But those statistics paled in comparison to the absurdity of his 2012 campaign.
Heinicke set several FCS records that year, including passing yards in a season (5,076), total yards in a game (791), passing yards in a game (730) and passing attempts in a game without an interception (79). Unsurprisingly, Heinicke won CAA Offensive Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS.
"I have a hard time fathoming what he's doing on the football field," former Monarchs head coach Bobby Wilder said of Heinicke's record-setting performance in a 64-61 win over New Hampshire.
3. Heinicke is very familiar with Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner.
Heinicke signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2015 and spent two seasons working under then quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. That familiarity paid off in April of 2018, when Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers claimed Heinicke off waivers despite having attempted just one NFL pass during his first three seasons. Months earlier, Turner returned to Carolina to serve as the team's quarterbacks coach.
"I've known Taylor for a long time," Turner told the Panthers' team website on Dec. 20, 2018. "I watched his film and was intrigued."
Three days later, Heinicke replaced the injured Cam Newton and made his first and only professional start, completing 35 of his 57 passes for 320 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in a 24-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers re-signed Heinicke the following March but released him during final roster cuts.
"First of all, he's a good athlete," Rivera said of Heinicke earlier this month. "He really is. He has tremendous athletic ability, good speed, good quickness. He's got a good arm. He can make most throws in this league. He's a little bit of a gunslinger. He's got good toughness about him."
4. Before signing with Washington, Heinicke kept his NFL dream alive while planning for life after football.
Months after the Panthers released him, Heinicke was allocated to the St. Louis BattleHawks before the 2020 XFL Draft. Heinicke did not record any statistics in five games, and his contract was terminated when the league suspended operations in April.
Not knowing when he would receive another chance to play football, Heinicke decided to return to Old Dominion this fall to finish his engineering degree. His four courses: partial differential equations, applied numerical methods, mathematics in nature, and number theory and discrete mathematics.
"Taylor's a sharp dude," Rivera said recently. "He picked up [the offense] right away."
5. "It's been a bizarre month or two."
In early December, Heinicke sent an email to his professors asking if he could make up his finals after the New Year. He was needed as an NFL quarterback.
"They were pretty nice about it, so thankful for that," Heinicke said. "I didn't have to do a whole semester of work for nothing."
Washington signed Heinicke to the practice squad Dec. 8, then promoted him to the active roster for the Seahawks game with Smith ruled out. Eight days later, with Smith once again sidelined, Heinicke replaced Dwayne Haskins Jr. with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and nearly led a double-digit comeback with the division title on the line.
"It was gutsy," Rivera said of Heinicke's impressive performance in a 20-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers. "I thought he took advantage of what they were doing in terms of playing soft and allowing him to take the underneath, allowing him to hit certain throws. I thought his decision to take off and run was outstanding. I thought he had great vision. He went through his progressions and read the defense well and gave us a chance, which is all you can ask."
With Smith limited in practice the past two weeks with an injury, Heinicke has taken the bulk of the first-team reps. Now he'll have a chance to reprove himself in a postseason game opposite the best playoff quarterback in NFL history.