Can Taylor Heinicke step up and win games for the Commanders? Or will he struggle until Carson Wentz returns?
Washington Commanders backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke has been announced as the team’s new starter. This comes shortly after starter Carson Wentz was announced out for 4-6 weeks with a fractured ring finger in his right throwing hand. Fifth-round rookie Sam Howell will move up to second-string. The team signed Jake Fromm to its practice squad this week.
How We Got Here
When the Commanders traded for Carson Wentz we were bullish. I remember thinking the first report was a fake account. The most Washington quarterback move of all time. The franchise personified. Something short-term, uninspiring, and with zero cajones.
Cooler heads realized and appreciated (or at least understood) that it was low-risk, but an experiment. The team could cut ties with Wentz’s massive salary after the season. The draft compensation was a trade-down in the second round, a seventh-round selection, and a future conditional third.
Is Wentz Still Worth It?
We have tangible precedent for the ceiling and the floor of Carson Wentz. Ceiling? One of how many quarterbacks that can win MVP and a Super Bowl (2017). Floor? The objective worst quarterback in the league (2020). Washington bet on the upside, which is what you do. No quarterback’s floor will win you playoff games. Most quarterbacks don’t have the upside to win four of them.
We shouldn’t, and I am not, calling it after six games. However, the investment in someone as pedestrian as Wentz when the roster already had Taylor Heinicke was my biggest qualm with Commander Carson.
Reintroducing Taylor Heinicke
In what was essentially a redshirt rookie year in 2021, Heinicke went 7-8 with awful weapons and a bad defense. He threw for 3,419 yards on 65% completion, and 20 touchdowns to 15 picks. He ran for another 313 yards and a score, averaging 5.2 yards per rush. He delivered four game-winning drives in his seven wins. Only playoff-appearers Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, and Ben Roethlisberger led more.
If Heinicke was a 2020 draft pick and 2021 was his first year as a starter, we’d be ecstatic. Home run pick. First-year starters as a vast majority lower their interceptions and improve their completion rate and yards per attempt. A version of Heinicke with even average boosts to his game, plus this improved defense and the additions of Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, Brian Robinson, and Cole Turner, definitely add a couple of wins to 7-8. Washington finished 7-10 on the year, losing both games Heinicke missed. The Eagles were the last team in the NFC playoffs, making it in at 9-8. Just saying.
2020 wasn’t close to a rookie year, or a backup year, or a Trey Lance groomed-to-be-the-starter year. Taylor hadn’t played pro ball all year – or in 2019. He was signed quite literally off the streets on December 8th. The QB wasn’t on anyone’s practice squad or on waivers. The dude was in mid-finals week, finishing his engineering degree at Old Dominion. He had to ask his professors’ permission to postpone his final exams so that he could play for the Washington Football Team.
What Has Heinick Done For Washington?
Taylor shined in his one start, 32 days removed from his four math classes, against Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champs. A playoff game in which he didn’t know he was starting until Friday afternoon (the game was on a Saturday).
The next year, despite never being the planned starter, he showed out as well as any backup could have. And being so fresh to NFL action, he was a backup with upside. At any position in any sport, players develop over reps infinitely more than time, especially quarterback. Nothing on a clipboard or film room can prepare you for the pressure and demands of actually engineering an 11-man offense against the world’s 32-best defenses.
That’s why I don’t take much from the baseball hat-wearing Heinicke did for all of seven games on bad Houston and Carolina teams 4-5 years ago. And even those seasons were three or four years after his senior year at Old Dominion in 2014, his last real playing time. In 2020 and ’21 Taylor was as raw as a 27-28-year-old can possibly be. He sharpens with each week.
Heinicke vs Wentz
Frame Heinicke this way, and it’s hard not to believe he has unrealized potential. His strong suit to avoid pressure is one of Carson’s most significant weaknesses and could be a reason last year’s offensive line looked so much better than this year’s. Heinicke also can use his legs to buy him time for extra reads and buy his now-dynamic receivers time to get open. 33.3% of his carries last season resulted in first downs. These things help him to convert calculated risks and buy a little bit more honesty from the defense that could also aid a leaky run game.
The Guys Appreciate Heinicke More Than You Realize
The players know. They can tell what’s real and what’s not, and they don’t rally or fight the same for every quarterback. When ESPN asked what he saw in Heinicke, Kendall Fuller said, “His grit, his willingness to fight, willingness to compete. It definitely motivated the whole team.”
Terry McLaurin told ESPN: “I’ll take No. 4 on my team any day of the week, twice on Sunday… I hope we’re teammates in the future. That dude plays with no fear. He’s going to give his players a chance to make plays. He extends plays, he runs, and he takes hits. He does everything you ask a quarterback to do in this league,” McLaurin said.
Morgan Moses, who saw plenty in seven years in Washington said, “The way he carries himself, he’s a true pro. I can’t tell you why he was on the street before we picked him up. He has every quality of a player you want. I’m just glad we got him. No words to explain the performance that he had [against Tampa Bay]. He stepped up on a big-time stage, and I commend him for that. The guy’s an awesome player. He has that ‘it’ factor, and you can’t teach that.”
Regardless of all things Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke deserves another shot in the NFL. Just ask the guys on the gridiron. They know better than any of us. There’s reason to be optimistic.
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