The Washington Football Team was supposed to be fun this year. Ryan Fitzpatrick, one of the league’s great personalities, earned a late-career starting opportunity with the Football Team for his play with the Buccaneers and Dolphins in recent seasons. Defensive juggernauts Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jon Allen, and DaRon Payne lined the front of the league’s most imposing preseason defense. Ron Rivera, another of the league’s most heartwarming characters, took a plucky Washington team to the 2020 playoffs and was ready for the next step into actual contention in 2021.
The best laid plans of mice and men, of course. Washington has been decisively not-fun since the opening bell. Fitzpatrick was lost for the season in Week 1 with a hip injury; Young got injured in the middle of the season after months of cellar-dwelling play from the disappointing defense. Washington rode a four-game losing streak into its bye, sitting at 2-5 with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers waiting on the other side.
The last time Washington played Tampa Bay, it did so as the lame duck fourth seed in the 2020 NFC playoffs: a 7-9 divisional champion led by Taylor Heinicke, Washington’s fourth-string quarterback called up after five years of bouncing around league practice squads and a stint of backup quarterbacking in the XFL. It was an absurd game to play; the unfortunate product of the league’s new 14-team playoff structure, and Heinicke’s role as the starting quarterback opposite Tom Brady was the absurd cherry on top.
You know the rest. Heinicke led the Washington offense to 23 points in a one-possession loss, playing the Bucs in arguably their closest game of the entire Super Bowl run. What was supposed to be a silly game suddenly became an emergent performance for the young quarterback. Chase Young made sure the camera caught Heinicke’s nameplate after his potential tying touchdown dive—just so everyone knew who this scrappy little fourth stringer going toe-to-toe with Brady was.
Everybody knows now. Heinicke has started each game in Fitzpatrick’s absence, and in the past few weeks, is playing the best ball of his young NFL career—a stretch, started funnily enough, in a shocking 29-19 win against the Super Bowl champions in Week 10. Washington is 3-0 in its past three games; Heinicke and the Washington pass offense are fourth in EPA per play over that stretch. Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas have made their long-awaited returns to the roster, and the Football Team sits atop of a pile of 5-6 teams as the current seventh seed in the NFC playoffs.
Just like he was on that playoff night against the Bucs, Heinicke is still good for a few magical escapes or gutsy conversions a game. He’s unflappable under pressure and unperturbed by tight coverage, willing to push the ball downfield in the face of either or both. Moxie might be a tough thing to quantify, but it’s sure an easy thing to identify, and Heinicke has it.
For as delightful as Heinicke is, offseason sobriety is coming: This is yet another year in which Rivera will look at an offense with impressive weapons and a good coordinator, a defense that (after a horrible start to the season) has settled into quality play, and a massive question mark at the quarterback position. Washington ended the 2020 season with enough juice from Heinicke to give him a modest extension, keeping him in the building to fight for the backup quarterback job. For the 2021 season, Heinicke might present a more viable solution to the vacant starting job, but he’s still far from a slam dunk. The expectations, and the question, for Heinicke have changed. Nobody’s still wondering if he can hang in the NFL —he clearly can. Now, we’re wondering just what he can become.
Heinicke didn’t make waves during the pre-draft process. College quarterbacks who present value to the league typically have elite measurables or elite college stats; Heinicke had neither. Heinicke is a 6-foot-1 quarterback who is notably lacking in arm strength, and at the college level, he didn’t garner elite production in his four-year starting career. Old Dominion was an FCS school for his first two seasons; by the time they landed in Conference USA, when Heinicke was a senior, he completed 63 percent of his passes for 7.6 yards per attempt and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio just shy of 2-to-1. That same season, Garrett Grayson, a four-year starter at Colorado State, had stronger production across the board and a pro frame to boot. Grayson was drafted in the third round in 2015; Heinicke went through that draft without hearing his name called.
The lack of physical tools is still reflected in Heinicke’s game. He’s not very tall or powerful, and accordingly, he struggles to deliver the ball downfield or from the far hash. Heinicke often leaves any throw that demands arm strength out to dry, which gives defenders time to play on the football or forces his receivers to work back to underthrown passes, limiting potential explosive plays.
This is a fairly common limitation for otherwise impressive quarterbacks in the NFL. Some, like Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, have such high-caliber skills in the other areas of quarterback play that they’re able to mask this issue; others, like Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger, have so many years of experience under their belt that they know how to maximize the limited field presented by their diminishing arms.
Heinicke does not fit into either of those groups.
I don’t think Heinicke knows that he has a below-average arm by league standards—but if he does know, he simply doesn’t give a hoot. Heinicke attacks tight windows in the intermediate areas of the field with the aggressiveness of a late-career Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford—quarterbacks who don’t just throw with incredible velocity, but also have years of learned experience on which windows they can and can’t attack. Heinicke plays the game in a perpetual heat check, often making more challenging throws as the game goes on, hitting blanketed receivers late in the down or with pressure directly in his face. Again, there’s some unearned but undeniable chutzpah here that blesses Heinicke in these late-game moments.
This strength is most evident in the red zone or on third downs, when coverage is inherently tighter. Heinicke will constantly challenge linebackers who get even a little lazy in their zone drops, constantly trusting his receivers to win out of breaks or through contact in the route.
In the discussion of arm strength and its limitations, we come to an important inflection point. Throwing arms aren’t strong or weak on a two-dimensional spectrum, but rather have to be divided into categories based on throw type. Some quarterbacks, like Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph, can launch deep moon shots, but struggle with velocity when throwing the ball on a line 15 to 20 yards downfield; other quarterbacks, like Heinicke, don’t have the distance on their arms to stretch the field, but can put some extra mustard on throws in the short areas of the field.
This is reflected in Heinicke’s numbers as a thrower. Washington seems hell-bent on making Heinicke work outside of the numbers, with a heavy reliance on intermediate, out-breaking routes, but Heinecke doesn’t really have the power to make those throws. Of the 24 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 50 passes outside of the numbers and farther than 10 yards downfield this season, only three—Sam Darnold, Trevor Lawrence, and Heinicke—have negative points earned on such passes, per Sports Info Solutions. No quarterback with at least 10 such attempts has a lower points earned per play than Heinicke does.
Instead of throws outside of the numbers, look at throws inside of the numbers, and Heinicke’s points earned per play jumps to 11th in the league. That’s where his zip, the aggressive play style, and quick release end up mattering more.
Put simply, Washington’s route distribution is built for a different quarterback—maybe Cam Newton, who was the quarterback under Scott Turner in Carolina in 2018, his first year as the quarterbacks’ coach; maybe Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has both a stronger downfield arm and better anticipation than Heinicke does. And because Heinicke is a fearless downfield thrower, he continues attacking those out-breaking routes, and his anticipation and accuracy in that regard is improving. But this simply cannot be the offense’s bread and butter, given how long it takes him to get the ball there.
Building an offense for Heinicke’s strengths shouldn’t be that hard. We’ve seen a clear blueprint developed and followed by other teams in the past few seasons. Smaller, zippy passers with the blind courage to stand in the pocket, take shots, and still make accurate throws over the middle of the field have been propped up all across the league by the Kyle Shanahan–Sean McVay offense. Heinicke could fit right into that mold.
We can see this potential directly reflected in Jimmy Garoppolo’s target distribution and success. Everyone knows that Garoppolo is a limited passer—even the 49ers, who after a few seasons of successful offense with Garoppolo at the helm, traded up in the 2021 NFL draft for QB Trey Lance, an acknowledgement of Garoppolo’s limitations. But Shanahan and the 49ers have gotten as much bang for their buck as possible, with an offense built perfectly for Garoppolo’s strengths. On those peak Heinicke throws of 10-plus air yards, between the numbers on the field, Garoppolo is fourth in points earned per play and third in positive play rate.
Strictly as a passer, Garoppolo is as neat of a comparison to Heinicke as there is currently in the league. They both quarterback like drunk college kids: unaware of their surroundings, undeterred by challenges that clear-minded quarterbacks wouldn’t dare attempt, and absolutely lost if things go even slightly awry. Garoppolo gets the benefit of an offensive designer who has catered a team so clearly to his strengths that the roster can make playoff runs; Heinicke doesn’t.
It may feel like this is a death knell comparison for Heinicke; after all, the 49ers are trying to move on from Garoppolo, just as McVay moved on from Jared Goff and the Browns may move on from Mayfield in similar offensive structures. But, even with Heinicke’s superior athletic ability and penchant for scrambling aside, it really isn’t. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a Garoppolo, a Tyrod Taylor, a Teddy Bridgewater: a good, but limited quarterback who can excel in ideal contexts and win a few games off the bench. You can carve out a nice, long, lucrative career if you fit that description. Just ask Ryan Fitzpatrick.
But of course, the feeling remains: the hope, the wish, that Heinicke might be more. It’s not dissimilar to the trance that Nick Foles put on Jacksonville and Chicago during the past few seasons: A quarterback who’s just good enough to hang around, and inevitably makes his best plays in the biggest moments, is both an easy and fun trap to fall into. But there is a difference between fun and good, and unfortunately, Heinicke falls toward the former more than he does the latter.
For Washington, right now, that just may be enough. Functional offense—not elite offense, not explosive offense–has delivered Washington to their three hard-fought wins and a leading position on the NFC wild-card bubble; against a beatable Las Vegas team on Sunday, it very well could lead them to their fourth win, and an even stronger position to repeat in the playoffs. And if that’s all Heinicke gives them–a .500 offense, a solid hope for playoff contention—during his career, that’s OK. Because it also gives Washington something else, something arguably more precious: time. It gives the Football Team time to figure out their roster, their strengths, and their weaknesses (maybe even their team name, for goodness’ sake!). And as everything around Heinicke comes into better clarity, they can wait for the right moment to upgrade at quarterback and surge into NFC contention.
That may be a raw deal for Heinicke to run the race, but not cross the finish line, but there’s no doubt that he’ll give us quite the show as he fights to hold on to this job for as long as possible. And while Washington worries about the fun-good distinction, we can just watch the fun unfold.