The pocket was quickly closing in around Taylor Heinicke in the third quarter with the Washington Football Team trailing by eight to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night.
He took a jab step, backed up and found himself between two Buccaneers defenders who were feet away from sacking him and forcing Washington to end the drive with a field goal. But right before Jason Pierre-Paul was about to wrap his arms around the former Old Dominion signal-caller, Heinicke ducked through his grasp and began sprinting for the end zone. The ball crossed the pylon as he dove in for the score, and with two minutes left in the third quarter, Washington was still alive against one of the NFL's best teams.
It was the highlight of what was an electrifying and magical performance from Heinicke, who was officially named the starting quarterback just hours before kickoff. He dipped and dodged his way to 352 total yards and two touchdowns and had Washington poised to upset Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
Heinicke hoped he would prove he deserves to be in the NFL for just a little bit longer, and no matter where he ends up next season, he has earned his teammates' and coaches' respect.
"It was gutsy," Rivera said of Heinicke's performance. "It really was. It was one of those things that -- a guy like him who works hard at what he does, he creates an opportunity for himself. 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."
Heinicke set the tone almost immediately on his first pass when he unloaded on a deep shot to Cam Sims in the middle of the field. Sims could not make the reception, but it was clear Heinicke was going to take shots downfield.
It took Heinicke a while to get in a groove. He went back to Sims on the next drive for a 36-yard gain but then followed that up with a tipped pass that turned into an interception. But after that, Heinicke was directing the offense to near perfection. He completed three of his next four passes for 52 yards and also scrambled for 12 to help Washington score its first touchdown of the night.
Washington couldn't get any more points on the board before halftime, but it was not for a lack of trying from Heinicke. He ended the half 10-of-18 for 130 yards, and his teammates were impressed with the way he took advantage of the opportunity.
"I have nothing but respect for number four," Terry McLaurin said after the game. "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."
Heinicke's truly spectacular moments came in the second half. After missing Antonio Gibson on the opening play of the third quarter, he completed three straight passes, including a 29-yarder to Logan Thomas, that set Washington up at Tampa Bay's 24-yard line.
That drive ended in a 36-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins, and after Daron Payne forced a fumble with six minutes left in the third quarter, Heinicke used his eight-yard diving score to cap off a seven-play, 61-yard drive in which he accounted for 75% of the unit's production.
McLaurin said he saw someone who plays with no fear; Morgan Moses, on the other hand, said Heinicke played with something that is unteachable: an "it" factor.
"He's a true pro," Moses said. "I can't tell you why he was on the street before we picked him up because obviously you see him out there playing today. He has every quality of a football player that you want. I'm just glad we got him."
After Washington's defense forced a punt on Tampa Bay's next drive, it looked like Heinicke was set to give the team its first lead of the night. But then disaster struck; Heinicke injured his shoulder and went into the locker room minutes later. It looked as if undrafted rookie Steven Montez would be finishing the game under center.
But then, right after Tampa Bay scored on a three-yard touchdown, Heinicke was back on the field and warming up for the next drive. It did not look like Heinicke had missed a beat, either. He ripped off seven straight passes and had Washington at the 11-yard line with five minutes left in the fourth quarter when he hit Steven Sims Jr. to make the score 31-23.
"He's gonna do everything you asked for a quarterback to do in this league," McLaurin said. "For a guy who hadn't, to my knowledge, played a lot of football up until this point necessarily, starting-wise, I think he played pretty well."
Heinicke said he was prepared every day as if he would be the starter. He was not even thinking much about going up against Brady. The only thing he cared about was being ready.
"I just wanted to go out there and complete the ball and let those guys do it," he said. "I go back to college and what my college coaches used to tell me. They just told me to complete the ball and get first downs and when you keep getting first downs, the next thing you know you're getting points."
The strategy nearly helped Washington to tie the score against the Buccaneers, but an 11-yard sack made for a 4th-and-21 that Heinicke just couldn't convert. But even still, Heinicke showed plenty of upside in the game. He was accurate with his passes, used his legs and, more importantly, showed Rivera that he could be useful next season should Washington decide to bring him back.
"As I said, the young man has earned an opportunity," Rivera said. "That's the best part about this is we're going to create competition around here. Guys are going to compete, and that's how you're going to get better."
No one knows what the future holds for Heinicke. Now that the season is over, he can go back to focusing on finishing his college finals. He has been on the other side of being out of the NFL. It is not as fun, he said, as being a professional football player. But if Rivera does decide to keep him around, it is clear that the future will be bright.
"I'm proud of myself and I'm happy that coaches believed in me and gave me the opportunity so...hopefully I can do it again next year," Heinicke said. "So, again, 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."