ASHBURN — Taylor Heinicke estimates he got only 45 minutes of sleep on the night his life changed forever. Riding high in the wake of an electric — if ultimately unsuccessful — playoff performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last January, the Washington quarterback spent hours returning text messages from friends and family.
The adrenaline from giving the eventual Super Bowl champs all they could handle kept him up.
“That game is probably the reason I’m still here,” Heinicke said Wednesday.
Heinicke and the Washington Football Team lost to the Buccaneers, but the quarterback’s eye-opening 306-yard outing was the main reason the Burgundy and Gold re-signed the 28-year-old to a two-year, $4.8 million deal in the weeks after.
Now, on Sunday, Heinicke gets another start against Tampa Bay. And again, much has changed. As usual for this franchise, not always for the better.
Ten months ago, Washington’s players and coaches went into the offseason more than optimistic that the playoff loss was just the beginning for a team on the rise.
“Greatness is what we could be, man,” running back J.D. McKissic said then.
Entering Sunday’s contest at 2-6, the Burgundy and Gold, instead, are far removed from greatness.
The optimism from that surprisingly competitive showing against the Buccaneers has dissipated.
“The biggest thing is the inconsistency in which we’ve played,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “Not playing a consistent brand of football. That’s probably the hardest part.”
Rivera said he hoped last year’s playoff loss would teach players a valuable lesson. If a team doesn’t drill down on the little details, he said, there are too many good players in this league who can exploit those mistakes.
Tampa Bay took advantage of Washington’s lapses on defense last January, carving the team up for more than 500 yards.
But after eight games, Washington arguably isn’t any closer to learning that lesson. Rivera noted Wednesday how often his team still has failed to nail down the basics this season.
“If you aren’t very, very good at the basics, you’ll have nothing to fall back on,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that Washington, as a franchise, has failed to capitalize on a promising playoff campaign. The Burgundy and Gold won the NFC East in 2012 and 2015 — only to go 3-13 and 8-7-1 in the very next years. Both squads missed the playoffs.
But what was different about last year’s group — why expectations were high that the success could be sustained — was that Washington actually had a young nucleus of stars like Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin. They were pieces that, in theory, could grow and help build a contender.
That core has mostly disappointed in 2021. Young only has 1½ sacks and Sweat will now miss a month with a broken jaw. Gibson has been hobbled most of the year due to a stress fracture in his shin. McLaurin has been excellent, but a single receiver isn’t enough to overcome the defense’s decline and problems at quarterback.
“When you get into the playoffs, I just remember everything — you feel like you have to be perfect in every aspect,” McLaurin said. “The way you prepare. The way you take care of your body. The way you perform on Sundays. When you get into those games, it really comes down to the execution. … You really have to prepare to be perfect going into those type of games.
“It’s hard to compare that (playoff) game to this season, and even that game to this game this year because it’s just different circumstances,” he added later.
In the ideal scenario for Washington, Heinicke wouldn’t even be starting Sunday’s game. Ryan Fitzpatrick, of course, was brought in to be this year’s starter before going down with a hip injury in Week 1.
Heinicke has played well for stretches, though he’s struggled lately. In a broader sense, he is no longer an NFL nomad — with his contract extension actually giving him some security. When he starts Sunday, he won’t be the unheard-of quarterback that catches people by surprise.
But while Heincike’s situation has personally improved, the situations are hardly the same.
“It’s a totally different feeling from what I was feeling this point last year,” Heinicke said.