There’s been a lot of talk about “David and Goliath” at the Washington Football Team facility recently.
But the more relevant story to focus on may be that of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — especially as it pertains to the team’s quarterback.
Taylor Heinicke has been a vastly different player in each month this season, and as it is with most quarterbacks, the team’s success is highly predicated on his performance.
He was a quasi-gunslinger in his first four games for a .500 team. He was bad and turnover-riddled in October, during which Washington lost four straight and questions arose about his job security. He was then an efficient game manager in November — the best month of his short career — and Washington is in the playoff hunt due to, in part, his improved play.
What quarterback, then, will Heinicke be in December?
That’s the question that could very well determine the fate of a team that is 5-6 and the No. 7 seed in the NFC with a chance to win the division.
The key for the offense during Washington’s three-game winning streak has been the coaching staff’s commitment to its rushing attack. The team has averaged 39 rushing attempts per game since the bye — up from 26 in the eight previous contests.
Washington coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday he sees a direct correlation between a team’s success in the running game and the play of its quarterback.
“I think a lot of it has to do with being able to run the ball successfully, because then it really adds to the play action,” Rivera said. “It really adds to slowing down the pass rush as opposed to them just going all out.”
Before the bye, Washington was passing the ball on 58.8% of its plays. In the three games since — wins over Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle — that number has fallen to 45.6%. Heinicke said the improved rushing attack — running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic totaled 200 yards from scrimmage on Monday — has made things “easier” for him.
“It takes a lot of pressure off a lot of people, not just me but the offensive line as well,” Heinicke said. “The [defensive] line can’t just pin their ears back and go when our guys are kind of beating them up in the run game.”
The success on the ground has coincided with an improvement in Heinicke’s statistics, which were well below average before the bye week.
In the first eight weeks, Heinicke had an 84.3 quarterback rating, 7.0 yards per attempt, a 63.9% completion percentage and an 11-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, since the bye, Heinicke has a 112.8 quarterback rating, 7.7 yards per attempt, a 77.5% completion rate and a 5-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The former stat line is that of a backup quarterback replacing a starter, which Heinicke was when he took over for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The latter one is that of a starting quarterback for a playoff team.
“Very much so,” Rivera said, when asked if Heinicke’s decision-making has improved. “I think that’s one of the things he’s learning is that he doesn’t always have to make the splash play, just make the smart play, which he did [Monday].”
The most eye-popping statistic for Heinicke recently has been his completion percentage. While three games is a small sample size, a 77.5% completion rate is far above the league average (65.2%) and high even for just a short stint of good games. Against Seattle, for example, Heinicke targeted his running backs on more than one-third of his pass attempts.
“I think that just comes with a lot of experience,” Heinicke said of taking what the defense gives him. “… When you keep throwing, trying to fit balls in deep and they get picked, you go back and watch them in film and there’s a guy wide open five yards down the field that can get you 10-15 yards and keep moving the chain. So, there’s that fine line of you want to be aggressive and take shots, but at the same time, you want to be smart and not turn the ball over.”
After Washington’s win over Seattle on Monday night, Rivera said his 28-year-old signal-caller was “sharp” and “managed the game” well. Being a game manager can be seen as an insult for an NFL quarterback, who often want to be seen as playmakers.
But Heinicke has made his fair share of highlight-reel plays so far in his NFL career, and even displayed that he can be an elite playmaker in the team’s win over Carolina, in which he posted the best QBR (ESPN’s quarterback rating) for any signal-caller that week and the ninth-best of the entire season.
But the game against Seattle called for Heinicke to put away his sling, check the ball down and manage the game that vaulted Washington into legitimate playoff contention.
“I do feel like I’m playing probably some of my best football I’ve ever played,” Heinicke said.