Opinion: Washington believes in Taylor Heinicke. Against the Giants, the ultimate Ron Rivera player delivered.

Mike Jones

LANDOVER, Md. — Riverboat Ron chose to gamble, not once but twice. 

First in the offseason, and then again as Plan A went to pot just 16 plays into the season opener. 

The Washington Football Team’s head coach could have – and some would say should have – found a more experienced, or more highly-touted backup to starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick during the spring. But rather than sign a veteran in free agency, or use an early draft pick on one of college football’s best options, Rivera decided to roll the dice with Taylor Heinicke – the fourth-year, undrafted journeyman. The 37-year-old Fitzpatrick (himself a career journeyman) had all of the traits needed to help Washington contend, Rivera believed. And Heinicke, although still raw with only nine NFL game appearances to his name before this season, offered adequate depth and potential. 

But Rivera and Washington didn’t even get a full game out of Fitzpatrick. A hip subluxation early in Sunday's loss to the Chargers sent the quarterback to the injured list. With veteran quarterbacks sitting on the free agent market, Rivera could have altered his course. 

But instead, he stuck with Heinicke, declaring him ‘The guy,’ even with the New York Giants coming to town for a crucial, early-season NFC East tilt. 

“He has a swagger to him, and his teammates feed off of him,” Rivera explained of the 28-year-old Old Dominion product, who had on short notice filled in admirably for an injured Alex Smith in Washington’s playoff appearance against Tampa Bay last January. “We’ve watched the way those guys do feed off of him, and it’s pretty impressive. We just have a feeling that if he can make some things happen and guys can rally around him, we can get some momentum.”

Heinicke rewarded Rivera for his endorsement Thursday night against those Giants, outdueling Daniel Jones while surviving a roller-coaster performance to lead a game-winning drive as Washington prevailed 30-29 on a last-second Dustin Hopkins field goal. Heinicke helped the defending NFC East champs even their record at 1-1 overall, and 1-0 in the division.

Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke scrambles away from New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams in the third quarter at FedEx Field.

It certainly wasn’t a flawless performance. At times Heinicke struggled with accuracy or displayed questionable decision-making. Early in the game, he took an unnecessary sack, burying his team deep in its own territory. Late in the game, he threw a potentially game-losing interception at his own 20-yard line. 

But amid all the shortcomings, Heinicke remained unflappable and resilient, displaying that very swagger of which Rivera spoke and the toughness that garnered the respect of his teammates last postseason and throughout this summer’s training camp and the preseason.

With the pressure at its most intense point, Heinicke shined the brightest. Rebounding from the interception by driving Washington the length of the field in the final two minutes of play, positioning his squad for Hopkins’ winning kick. 

The player that entered the game with just 589 career passing yards and three touchdowns and three interceptions in regular season play passed for 336 yards and two touchdowns Thursday, with the interception. Heinicke also earned the first win of his young career, and in so doing, he strengthened his hold on the starting job after affirming the belief of his bosses and teammates that their playoff hopes remain alive on his shoulders.

“You’re looking at a team who has 100% confidence in their quarterback,” defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, one of Washington’s captains, declared after the game. “We’re 100% behind him. We truly believe we can win with him and I think he’s shown that time and time again.”

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It’s one game, but the playoff performance (although a loss) and the daily approach Washington’s players and coaches observe fuels their confidence. 

Nobody cares that Heinicke doesn’t boast the strongest arm, or that while perhaps generously listed at 6-1, 210 pounds, he’s not the biggest guy. Durability has been an issue both in the NFL and in college.

Those within Washington’s organization only care about Heinicke’s mental makeup, approach to the game, and the results.

Rivera would rather roll with this undersized quarterback of low pedigree because he embodies everything he wants not only in his signal-caller, but his team as a whole.

Heinicke is relentless. He works and prepares tirelessly. He’s always ready, and when adversity strikes, he absorbs the blow and swings back. 

“He’s always ready for his moment and I love guys who are always ready for their moment and are always prepared,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who caught one of Heinicke’s touchdown passes, said. “He doesn’t complain about what reps he doesn’t get when he wasn’t the starter. He just makes the most of his opportunities. He did a great job of controlling the tempo tonight and in various situations, he slowed it down, made great passes, took what the defense gave him and gave the playmakers an opportunity to make plays, and when you have a guy like that, you just want to make plays. We’re lucky to have Taylor.”

Again and again, Heinicke responded to adversity against the Giants. He opened the game by throwing a near-interception, and two plays later took a bad sack rather than throwing the ball away. The Giants took the lead, but Heinicke found his rhythm and led Washington on consecutive scoring drives to take a 14-10 lead. New York rallied again to retake the lead twice more, but Heinicke ripped off two more strong responses. He extended plays, he audibled into more favorable situations, and he made big throws.

A two-play, 75-yard scoring drive featuring a 56-yard pass to running back J.D. McKissic and a 19-yard touchdown to Ricky Seals-Jones with 4:33 left should have positioned Washington to run out the clock. But an ill-advised throw wound up being intercepted by Giants cornerback James Bradberry, setting up the Giants to take a 29-27 lead with two minutes left.

In their long history of quarterback futility, Washington has seen many a passer crumble in response to such transgressions.

But seeing two minutes on the clock, and comfortable running a hurry-up offense because that’s all Old Dominion used for his four years there, Heinicke knew he could position Washington to win. And he did.

“He was like Russell Wilson out there. He was calm,” McKissic said. “He wanted to make a play. Wanted to do what it took. Only thing on his mind was winning.”

Hopkins’ make from 43 yards out lifted Washington to victory, and teammates praised the kicker’s resilience. But teammates on both sides of the ball couldn’t discuss the win without highlighting the inspiration drawn from the scrappy new leader of the offense.

More formidable defenses than the Giants await, and the young quarterback likely will encounter more ups and downs. But Rivera believes Washington can live with that, because rather than perfection, they’ll take the grit and potential that they see in Heinicke.