College student to NFL Playoff starter in just one month: The Taylor Heinicke Story

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E

WASHINGTON – Early last month, Taylor Heinicke was just an Old Dominion student working on his master’s degree. He was back matriculating at the school where he had enjoyed a career as a 4-year starter at quarterback for the Monarchs before a short, injury riddled NFL career. He had gone undrafted in the 2015 NFL Draft before being signed by the Minnesota Vikings and spending most of his first three seasons on practice squads for the Vikings, New England Patriots and Houston Texans. He finally made his NFL debut on Christmas Day 2017 for the Texans, completing his only pass attempt before a concussion forced him out of the game just like that.

He made his first NFL start in Week 16 of the next year for the Carolina Panthers, then led by now-Washington Football Team head coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera. He completed 33 of 53 passes for 274 yards that day against the Atlanta Falcons, throwing his first career touchdown pass but also three interceptions. Those 53 passes were an unthinkable amount of passes to be attempted by someone in their first career start but it also may have shown how much confidence Rivera had in the young signal caller. Unfortunately for Heinicke, he injured his elbow that day and spent the rest of the season (all of one more week) on the Injured Reserve and hadn’t gotten another chance to play at any level since. That included a season on the bench for the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks in 2019.

Back at ODU, taking math classes remotely, Heinicke received a call from a familiar voice in a new location. His old coach, Rivera, wanted him to come be the Washington Football Team’s “quarantine quarterback” on their practice squad as they fought for the NFC East crown and a playoff spot. Flash forward to December 27 and a horrible 3+ quarters from since released QB Dwayne Haskins and Heinicke was back on an NFL field after 2 years away, playing against he and Rivera’s old Panthers team. Heinicke completed 12 of his 19 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown in the 4th quarter that day. He also had another touchdown pass called back on a penalty in what turned out to be a one possession loss. However, it was enough to show Rivera and the Washington Football Team they might have something in Heinicke.

After QB Alex Smith started and won in Week 17 to get Washington to the playoffs, he was inactive Saturday night against Tampa Bay. Despite Heinicke having only started one NFL game, “Riverboat Ron” decided to roll the dice on a guy who had only played 126 snaps in his NFL career against a quarterback who was making his 42nd career postseason start: Tom Brady. Despite getting the start against the man he backed up during his time in New England, it was now Taylor Heinicke's time to shine…and shine he did.

All that reading in classes last semester paid off Saturday night as Heinicke was making all the right reads early and often. He was able to keep Washington within striking distance, 18-7, at halftime behind a first half where he completed 10 of 18 pass attempts for 129 yards. His lone pick came in the 1st quarter but it came on a tipped pass that hung in the air just long enough for Sean Murphy-Bunting to make a diving interception. He could have had an even better first half if not for multiple drops by his receivers.

Heinicke also made a lot of plays with his legs against Tampa Bay that Smith and his injured calf/surgically repaired leg could not anymore. He brought mobility to the Washington quarterback position they sorely lacked with Smith under center. He scrambled for 46 yards on 6 carries Saturday night including multiple big first downs and a huge 8-yard touchdown run, where he broke the plane of the goal line while diving for the pylon late in the 3rd quarter to bring Washington within 2-points, 18-16.

On the next drive, Heinicke was once again bitten by the injury bug, that had plagued him throughout his time in the NFL, after taking a hard hit throwing the ball away and came up favoring his left arm. Two plays later he was hit again on an incompletion and his left arm looked to be hanging limp. He was taken to the locker room for further examination and his return was questionable early in the 4th quarter. Despite the questionable tag, Heinicke was able to come back on Washington’s next possession, but they were trailing 28-16 at that point with only 9:11 left. Nursing a left elbow wrapped in kinetic tape, Heinicke led an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped off by a beautiful 11-yard touchdown pass to former Kansas Jayhawk, Steven Sims Jr, that stood after a replay review. Heinicke, despite everything, had Washington within 5-points of former teammate Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 4:51 to go. Following his injury, Heinicke's scoring drive began with him completing 7 of his first 7 passes and ended with him throwing a touchdown on his 10th attempt and accounting for 71 of the 75 Washington yards on the drive.

The fairy tale ended there, however, for Heinicke and Washington, as they fell to Tampa Bay 31-23, but not for a lack of performance from the 27-year old quarterback. He finished the night completing 26 of 44 pass attempts for 306 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception. Not only did he bring more mobility to the table than Smith did, but more than any other Washington quarterback had ever brought in the playoffs. His 46 yards on the ground broke Joe Theismann's Washington playoff record of 38 rushing yards by a quarterback, set back on December 30, 1984, nearly a decade before Heinicke was born.

Although the Washington Football Team came up short Saturday night, Heinicke illustrated what he is capable of on the NFL's biggest stage. Not bad for a guy who was just a master's program student at Old Dominion barely a month ago.