ASHBURN — Just as the pandemic started to shut everything down in March 2020, Taylor Heinicke was in limbo. The XFL, the upstart league the quarterback joined to keep his football dream alive, had canceled the rest of its season. And Heinicke, a backup for the St. Louis BattleHawks, wondered what to do.
As teammates and coaches heard the news and rushed to fly to their homes across the country, Heinicke decided to stay put for another two to three weeks. He needed to figure out his life. So, Heinicke lived out of the St. Louis hotel room the BattleHawks had originally provided for him — now paying out of his own pocket.
“It was a bizarre, bizarre thing that happened,” he says, “but you just kind of got to roll with the punches.”
What made Heinicke’s decision fascinating, in hindsight, was that no one would have blamed him for wanting to leave. The XFL had not become the launching pad to the NFL that Heinicke had hoped for. He‘d been a backup — unable to crack the BattleHawks’ lineup, stuck behind Jordan Ta’amu, the straight-from-college, big-armed passer that the St. Louis franchise had decided to invest time and money into.
But the spring league proved to be a crucial experience for Heinicke. The journey, he said, taught him “a lot about myself” — from how he had to swallow his pride to join the league to coping with the frustration of losing out on a starting job. And the XFL even gave Heinicke an idea of what he might want to do after his playing days are over.
“When you’re in the NFL for a number of years and no one is calling and there’s another spring league … it was almost one of those things that you did not want to step down in competition,” Heinicke told The Washington Times. “At the same time, you start looking at the players that started to enter the XFL, you say ‘OK, these guys are good players. They’ve played in (NFL) as well.’
“So yeah, ‘Let’s give this thing a try.’”
On Sunday, the former XFL backup will lead the Washington Football Team against Patrick Mahomes, arguably the face of the modern NFL, and the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the league’s most successful franchises. The game will mark Heinicke’s fifth straight start and serve as a stark reminder of how far he’s come since those days in his hotel room.
Hiding in plain sight
When Heinicke was lighting up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last year’s playoff game, one NFL writer tweeted: “I have some questions for the coaching staff of the St. Louis Battlehawks.”
Heinicke looked so impressive that day — and has flashed enough of that same electric talent since — that the question becomes unavoidable: How was this guy riding a minor league bench?
Jonathan Hayes, St. Louis’ coach and general manager, disputes that he and his staff missed out on Heinicke. Heinicke regularly picked apart the team’s defense in practice, Hayes said, and the coach would have gladly played him if needed.
But the competition between Ta’amu and Heinicke was close — Ta’amu was the more accurate passer in the preseason, he said. Hayes and his staff felt Heinicke would be able to handle a backup role, given his age (28) and maturity. Even in hindsight, Hayes doesn’t regret the choice.
“Hell no,” Hayes said when asked if he second-guesses himself. “As a coach, you can never live that way. Hell no.”
The decision initially left Heinicke “pissed off,” the quarterback said. Yes, he‘d had been a backup in the NFL. He‘d even been cut multiple times. This was different. This was the XFL. Heinicke said he “tried not to let it sting,” but there were days when he’d return to his hotel room and reality set in.
“You’re like, ‘Damn, what did I do wrong?’ Heinicke said.
Heinicke said he realized he couldn’t change the situation. Instead, he tried to analyze his flaws — judging whether he wasn’t putting in enough extra work or whether he wasn’t taking the weight room seriously enough. He also embraced helping others, trying to mentor Ta’amu.
In St. Louis, Heinicke started to implement a method that he picked up on from quarterback Cam Newton when they were teammates in Carolina. Over the week of practice, Heinicke created a tip sheet in which he wrote down smaller details emphasized from coaches. Then on the day before the games, Heinicke got up in front of a team meeting and quizzed teammates to see how much they remembered.
Hayes and Chuck Long, St. Louis’ offensive coordinator, were blown away. They had never seen a player take initiative like that in all their years of coaching.
“He was like a coach doing it,” Long said. “It was very unique.”
A new take on the game
Heinicke began to weigh the idea of becoming a coach — so much so that in the months after the XFL folded, he called Washington offensive coordinator and friend Scott Turner to gauge whether he could help him get into the profession.
By then, in the middle of the summer, the coaching cycle was over. So, Turner told him if he was serious, Heinicke needed to finish his degree and then hit him up again in the winter.
“Then he ended up playing against Tampa Bay in January,” Turner said with a smile, “so it switched up.”
In their conversation, Turner told Heinicke to stay ready and not hang up his cleats. He mentioned that with the pandemic, teams could very well be in need of extra quarterbacks — and that proved to be the case with Washington, which brought in Heinicke last November as an in-case-of-emergency option should the virus sideline the quarterback room. Coaches encouraged Heinicke to keep his distance as much as possible.
When Washington chose to sign Heinicke back then, coach Ron Rivera said the team didn’t give Heinicke’s XFL stint much thought. After all, what tape was Rivera supposed to watch? The clips that went viral of Heinicke chugging seltzer after a win? The coach was more than familiar, having coached him in Carolina.
So, out of curiosity, what did Rivera make of Heinicke being a backup for the BattleHawks?
“Oops,” Rivera said. “Coaching’s an inexact science sometimes.”