- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 9, 2021

LANDOVER — As Tampa Bay lined up to kickoff almost midway through the fourth quarter, Taylor Heinicke sprinted out of the locker room to rejoin his team. Washington’s season and playoff hopes had come down to him, and so despite a shoulder injury suffered earlier, Heinicke just had to be out there.

It didn’t matter that Saturday was Heinicke’s first playoff game, his ninth NFL appearance overall. Or that he found out a day earlier he would replace an injured Alex Smith. Or that he’d have to face Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.

Washington needed him. And so, like the rest of the team, he fought.

Heinicke gave an incredible effort as Washington fell 31-23 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Saturday’s wild card showdown at FedEx Field. Making his first start of the year, Heinicke threw for 306 yards on 26 of 44 passing, a touchdown and an interception.

Heinicke even put Washington in a position for a possible game-tying drive with 2:49 left when the team got the ball back after a 37-yard Buccaneer field goal. Washington’s offense almost reached midfield, but the Buccaneers forced a turnover on downs.

“I’m really proud of this group of men,” coach Ron Rivera said. “It hasn’t been an easy year. It’s been a trying and very taxing year. And these guys were very resilient. They bounced back.”

Rivera said he was surprised the offense stalled out before reaching the end zone. The coach was confident, admitting he had the call for the two-point conversion they would need to tie the game in the back of his mind when the drive started. Still, Heinicke had a remarkable performance — matching Brady’s precision and overcoming an injury.

Late in the third quarter, Heinicke suffered a shoulder injury when leaping into the end zone for a touchdown. The injury bothered him to the point in which Heinicke went back to the locker room with trainers in the fourth quarter, discovering he had a separated A/C joint. While Heinicke was back in the locker room, the Buccaneers further extended their lead when Leonard Fournette punched in a 3-yard touchdown.

But Heinicke came back and responded with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped off with an 11-yard strike to Steven Sims. Heinicke perfectly placed the ball on an outroute to the wide receiver, whose toes dragged in the end zone for the score. 

That cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 28-23, though the Buccaneers extended the lead to eight with another field goal.

Brady, though, proved too much for Washington’s defense. The 43-year-old, a six-time Super Bowl champion, dissected the unit as he threw for 381 yards with two touchdowns. The defensive line wasn’t as consistent as it needed to be in order to spring the upset. 

Despite going against Brady, Heinicke said he wasn’t fazed. His play backed the sentiment. On Heinicke’s very first pass, he took a deep shot to a wide-open Cam Sims, who dropped what should have been an easy completion. But from there, the tone was set.

Heinicke helped Washington crawl back from a 9-0 deficit. To get the team on the board, Heinicke carved into Tampa Bay’s fifth-ranked defense with completions of 24, 18 and 10 yards that helped set up a 7-yard J.D. McKissic rushing touchdown.  For good measure, he got Washington into scoring territory with 12 rushing yards.  

Heinicke’s mobility played a huge role in why Rivera ultimately decided to make Smith, the quarterback responsible for leading the team to the postseason at 7-9, inactive for Saturday’s game. Nursing a calf injury that forced him to miss two games and hampered him in last week’s win in Philadelphia, Smith “couldn’t escape” a pass rush effectively, Rivera said.  

Washington made the announcement hours before kickoff in what could be a disappointing end for the 36-year-old, who has not decided if he wants to play next season. 

Yet, Washington embraced Heinicke, the team’s fourth quarterback of the season. All week, Rivera used the old-coaching adage of “Why Not us?” to sell his team that they could be “David” in a “David and Goliath” style showdown. 

Almost no one, after all, expected Washington in this position. Not after a 3-13 season in 2019. Or a tumultuous offseason that included a name change and an NFL-launched investigation into sexual harassment allegations. Or even midseason, when Washington started 2-7 and shuffled through quarterbacks. Why would Heinicke change that? 

Wide receiver Terry McLaurin said Heinicke, signed last month, was ready for the moment. 

“I’ll take No. 4 any day of the week,” McLaurin said. “Twice on Sundays. … That dude plays with no fear.” 

As Heinicke was conducting Washington’s offense, as he made an upset feel possible, the rest of the NFL community was taken back by the 27-year-old’s performance. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes tweeted, “Bro what!?!?!” after Heinicke’s third-quarter score cut Tampa Bay’s lead to two (18-16). Others wondered how Heinicke, who spent the spring in the XFL, was just a backup for the St. Louis Battlehawks. 

Heinicke’s gutsiest moment came on the drive that sparked Mahomes’ tweet. Getting the ball back on a forced fumble by Daron Payne, Heinicke engineered a drive that put Washington on the verge of tying the game. On third-and-5 from Tampa Bay’s eight-yard line, Heinicke broke free from the pocket, scramble to the outside and dove across the pylon.

As Washington celebrated the score, defensive end Chase Young ran on the field and pointed to Heinicke’s name on the back of his jersey. He stared into the camera. If the world hadn’t had any idea who Heinicke was, they did now.

“There’s somethings you can’t teach,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “He has that it factor.”

Rivera said he was impressed with Heinicke, telling reporters that the quarterback deserves another shot in the NFL in the future. 

That, Heinicke said, was his goal all along. Before Washington called, Heinicke was back taking classes online to finish his mathematics degree at Old Dominion, where he was a star before turning pro in 2015.  Heinicke will now become a free agent, though Rivera expressed interest in retaining him. 

Heinicke was glad Washington believed in him. 

“Hopefully, I deserve to be in the league a little longer,” Heinicke said. “Not playing, being in the real world, it’s not fun. It’s not as fun as this. I want to be in the NFL. I want to keep playing ball. It’s a dream of mine.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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