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After Years Of Doubt and Dismissal, Taylor Heinicke Seizes His Spotlight Moment

Heinicke

A few seconds after New York Giants cornerback James Bradberry stepped in front of Terry McLaurin to make a game-turning interception deep in Washington territory last Thursday night at FedExField, the man who'd delivered the gift-wrapped package with 2:16 remaining trudged angrily to the sideline, removed his helmet and slammed it to the ground with both hands.

As Taylor Heinicke seethed, fans in entertainment rooms and on outdoor restaurant patios all across America shook their heads dismissively, doubting the legitimacy of the 28-year-old journeyman clinging to his NFL dream.

It's a look Heinicke knows well, one he noticed on a frequent basis during the summer of 2020, when he was close to giving up on the sport he loves. Even as he basks in the afterglow of Thursday's dramatic, 30-29 victory over the Giants and prepares to lead Washington (1-1) into Sunday's road clash against the potent Buffalo Bills, Heinicke isn't too far removed from the steady stream of Dude, please glares that greeted him whenever he stepped onto a football field.

One morning at Sharon Springs Park in suburban Atlanta, while helping to train some local college, junior college and high school players with NFL aspirations, Heinicke got so much attitude -- particularly from one collegiate quarterback -- that the disrespect got under his skin.

"There were some players that were iffy about it, and I get it, but… some kids were like that," Heinicke recalled Tuesday. "And I would kind of get on them. For instance, we had a college kid come in, a quarterback, and I was training him, and he was kind of giving me the cold shoulder. I went home and did some research on him and saw that his team went like 0-11 the year before.

"So the next time I went out there and he gave me the cold shoulder, I was like, 'Hey, listen man: You don't have to listen to me, but if you keep doing what you're doing, you're gonna keep going 0-11. Obviously, what you're doing right now isn't working, so maybe try and listen. Try and get a little bit better.'"

The rest of the players in the training group froze, mouths agape. It was so quiet, you could hear a mic drop.

"He left the field pretty pissed off," Heinicke said, "but I think it sunk in. He came back the next week ready to work. So, something got through to him, and he's doing a lot better this year."

Heinicke has yet to convert all of his doubters into believers, but he's proving that he belongs on the sport's grandest stage -- and he could be on the verge of shockingly seizing a starting job.

For all the improvisational grit Heinicke displayed in last January's 31-23 playoff defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he went toe-to-toe with a living legend, he entered the 2021 campaign firmly entrenched as the backup behind veteran free-agent signee Ryan Fitzpatrick. However, Fitzpatrick suffered a hip injury in the second quarter of Washington's season opener, and Heinicke played well in relief, though the team fell 20-16 to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Four days later, Heinicke (34 for 46, 336 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) rallied Washington to a last-second victory over the Giants. Shaking off that late interception to Bradberry, which set up Graham Gano's go-ahead field goal, Heinicke captivated a national audience by engineering a game-winning drive.

With Fitzpatrick on injured reserve and expected to miss six-to-eight weeks, Heinicke has a chance -- beginning Sunday against a Bills team that reached last season's AFC championship game -- to make his case to coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner that he should be Washington's quarterback of the present, if not the future. Given that Heinicke, in a postgame interview with NFL Network Thursday, answered in the affirmative when asked if he felt he'd earned the right to start the rest of the season, it's clear that he's not shying away from the challenge.

As Heinicke said on Tuesday: "I feel like every quarterback that's on the active 53 should believe that they're a starter in this league, and if you don't, then I feel like there's something wrong."

He certainly has the attention of Washington's next opponent.

"He's a gamer," said Bills general manager Brandon Beane. "He doesn't have all the prototypical things you look for -- height, an elite arm, elite size -- but man, he's instinctive, he knows where his outlets are when he gets in trouble, and he's not afraid to check it down when it's not there.

"And you know what I like about him? He's gonna give his guys a chance to make a play, and that breeds confidence. He's thrown some balls that maybe looked dangerous, but his guys have come down with most of those, and I'm sure they're enjoying that."

To say that Heinicke is enjoying the moment would be a vast understatement. Consider that, a little less than a year ago, he was finally coming to terms with the likelihood that his football career was done.

After a long stint of staying with his sister and brother-in-law in suburban Atlanta, Heinicke had moved into a home he'd purchased nearby. In addition to training those high school and college players on a volunteer basis, Heinicke took virtual classes at his alma mater, Old Dominion (where he's still a few units shy of earning a mathematics degree). The course load: partial differential equations, applied numerical methods, mathematics in nature, and number theory and discrete mathematics. Gulp.

It didn't take an advanced analytical mind to compute Heinicke's chances of getting back onto an NFL roster, let alone becoming a starter. Already, he had defied the odds. Following a prolific career at Old Dominion, Heinicke, hampered by lack of size (he's generously listed at 6-foot-1) and stigmatized by ODU's small-program status, failed to secure an invitation to the 2015 NFL scouting combine, despite a weak quarterback class.

Turner, then the Minnesota Vikings' quarterbacks coach, was the only NFL coach to attend his Pro Day in Norfolk.

"I was just laughing about this the other day, and telling the story to a couple of people, with Taylor in the room," Turner said Tuesday. "After the two guys at the top [Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota], it was one of the worst quarterback classes in NFL history, so I was looking around for anyone who might be a little off-the-radar. When I got to [Heinicke], I turned on the tape from the game they played against North Carolina State and figured, 'Let's see how he did against a higher level of competition.' Second play of the game, he throws a pick right to the middle linebacker, and I'm thinking, 'Oh no.'"

The film got better, however, and Turner helped convince the Vikings to sign Heinicke as an undrafted free agent. Turner's regard for the quarterback later led to Heinicke joining the Carolina Panthers -- his fourth NFL team, if you include a very brief stint on the Patriots' practice squad -- in 2018. With Rivera as coach and Turner as quarterbacks coach, Heinicke got his first NFL start in Week 16 of that year; he suffered an elbow injury late in the game and was replaced by… Kyle Allen, his current backup.

After being released by the Panthers during the final wave of roster cuts in August of 2019, Heinicke kept hope alive, signing with the XFL's St. Louis BattleHawks. However, he did not play a snap during the league's truncated 2020 season.

So Heinicke went back to Georgia, assisting local trainer Earl Williams and doing his best to stay in shape.

"Actually, I was running a lot of routes for those high school quarterbacks when we didn't have enough receivers," Heinicke recalled. "Being around the game for so long, I kind of know what those guys are looking for out there on the field. That was kind of my conditioning -- I think it helped me stay in shape and helped my agility and speed."

In those moments, it was pretty impossible for onlookers to envision Heinicke as a guy who'd have the ball late in a one-possession playoff game against Tom Brady the following January. By then, he was used to people doubting his dream.

"Yeah, I think that happens a lot," he said. "There are a lot of guys that are on the cusp, man, and they're just working and trying to get that opportunity. And a lot of them don't get that opportunity. I'm lucky enough to get that second chance. You see a lot of those players out – 'cause again, this is a tough league to stay in; the NFL's Not For Long.

"You see that a lot, but at the same time you can't really listen to those [doubters], you can't let those guys bring you down. You know what you're capable of; you know what you want to accomplish. People who haven't played in the league, they just don't understand what it takes. Sometimes they're thinking that 'he's chasing an empty dream,' but we all just know it takes one opportunity."

In early December, Heinicke was in his bed studying for finals when he got a call from his agent, Chris Cabott. Said Heinicke: "First call I got from my agent all year, and the first thing he says to me was, 'Hey man, you ready to go play some football?'"

The rest of the story is familiar to Washington fans: Signed as a quarantine quarterback -- "As bad it sounds," he said, "COVID's actually the thing that saved my career" -- Heinicke went from the practice squad to the active roster and ultimately the field, relieving the benched (and soon-to-be-released) Dwayne Haskins in a Week 16 defeat to the Panthers and starting the playoff game in place of the injured Alex Smith.

In February, on the strength of his performance against the Bucs, Heinicke signed a two-year deal with Washington worth up to $8.5 million. The dream was alive and well -- but the hits kept coming, and they were of the friendly fire variety.

During OTAs last spring, as the offense worked through an install period that was supposed to be half speed, Heinicke executed to a play fake to running back Jonathan Williams and caught an elbow to the forehead, resulting in a gash that required several stitches. "I want to say the fake was pretty good, but the execution wasn't there," Heinicke said, laughing. "It was a more physical OTAs than I anticipated, but it makes me stronger, and I have a sweet scar on my face now."

At another practice, rookie defensive end Shaka Toney swooped in and hit Heinicke's arm as the quarterback released a pass. Heinicke wasn't hurt, but Toney's transgression provoked an epic tantrum from Rivera.

Perhaps Heinicke should wear a really, really bright red jersey in practice. As he demonstrated against the Giants, this unlikely starter is now a pivotal part of the burgundy and gold universe, and he's determined to live in the moment.

"After the game, going back to your phone and you get 150 to 200 texts," Heinicke marveled. "You start hearing from people you haven't heard from in four or five years, old friends and coaches reaching out because they saw you on prime time. It's a pretty cool deal."

Even cooler: As Heinicke lives out his dream, the Dude, please glares are starting to disappear, one doubter at a time.

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