ASHBURN — Just before practice Tuesday, Washington coach Ron Rivera came up to Taylor Heinicke and gave the quarterback an order that reflected the magnitude of the moment. With Ryan Fitzpatrick injured, Rivera told Heinicke to lead the pre-practice huddle and address the team.
After all, this moment represents the young quarterback’s opportunity. To seize the moment, Heinicke has to lead.
“Being the new starting guy, I felt like I needed to get in front of the team a little bit,” Heinicke said with a smile. “I went in there and said a couple of words that I probably shouldn’t say right now about these Giants.”
Heinicke’s animated message was intended to fire up teammates for Thursday’s game against the New York Giants. But the speech was also a chance for Heinicke to show that he’s more than comfortable with handling the responsibilities of a starting quarterback — a role that the 2015 undrafted free agent has only held briefly during his career. ‘
Thursday will mark just his second regular-season start and his third overall including the playoffs. In those spots, Heinicke has flashed talent. He‘s provided a spark and kept defenses off balance with his legs. But the undersized 6-foot-1 quarterback hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to stake a claim on a starter’s job.
Heinicke suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 16 for the 2018 Carolina Panthers and suffered a separated shoulder in the playoffs for Washington last season.
That injury history puts Heinicke and Washington a precarious position for the rest of the season. Starting with the Giants, Heinicke needs to show he can play smarter and avoid taking unnecessary hits — and Washington‘s porous offensive line needs to demonstrate that it can block for him upfront.
“He doesn’t need to put himself in harm’s ways,” Rivera said of Heinicke. “I think that’s one of the things if you watched the way he played (before) — he’s learning to be patient and take what’s given to him.”
Heinicke put on 10 pounds this offseason in an attempt to get more durable. In Sunday’s loss against the Los Angeles Chargers, Heinicke said he noticed a difference. Hits, he said, didn’t hurt as much. Heinicke was sore after the game, but said that comes with the territory of playing football.
As he bulked up, his goal was to retain his speed. And in that department, he was also pleased. Heinicke officially only rushed for 17 yards on three attempts, but there were a number of dropbacks in which the pocket broke down and Heinicke scrambled outside to make a throw. After looking at the film, Heinicke said he did “pretty well” at using his legs to avoid trouble.
Heinicke’s health, though, won’t be just up to him. Heinicke‘s on the field because Washington‘s offensive line couldn’t protect Fitzpatrick.
The Chargers notched just one sack, but put pressure on the Washington quarterbacks on 26.9% of the team’s dropbacks — 11th-best in the league, according to Stathead.
Washington’s pocket time, or the time it took before a pass attempt or the pocket collapsed, was just 2.1 seconds — tied for worst in the league.
Tackle Charles Leno said he felt “really terrible” about the play that led to Fitzpatrick’s injury. Chargers defensive end Uchenna Nwosu blew past Leno on the rush for a straight line shot on the quarterback, crushing him on a hit that forced the journeyman out of the game.
“I tell him all the time I want to protect my quarterback,” Leno said. “And in that instance, I did not.”
Leno wasn’t the only lineman who struggled. Rookie Sam Cosmi also had a rough day, albeit matched up against four-time Pro Bowler Joey Bosa. According to Pro Football Focus, Cosmi gave up four pressures, two hurries and a hit.
After Tuesday’s practice, Rivera defended the second-rounder, saying the rookie “held his own.” But there were moments Rivera said Cosmi “played anxious” and lost some of his technique as a result.
The offensive line will have to adjust to Heinicke, too. With Heinicke more mobile than Fitzpatrick, Leno said the line will have to be more cognizant of when the quarterback takes off because they’ll have to let go of the opposing linemen in order to avoid holding penalties.
Bur Heinicke has started to win people over. That process began last year when the Old Dominion product started in Washington’s playoff game for an injured Alex Smith and dazzled with a gusty performance. For wideout Terry McLaurin, it was Heinicke’s knowledge of the playbook that impressed him almost instantly. Defensive end Chase Young said he loved Heinicke’s composure.
Even newcomers like Leno, who signed with Washington in the offseason, have embraced the change.
“This is his moment now,” Leno said. “He’s got to take advantage of it. And I’m going to do the best I possibly can to help him succeed in this moment.”