‘Underdog’ Heinicke changes Washington Commanders identity

Taylor Heinicke is not Carson Wentz. That much is obvious.

Heinicke does not have the prototypical size or arm strength for an NFL quarterback such as Wentz, nor the expectations that come from being a No. 2 pick or the nine-figure contract.

But he does bring what coach Ron Rivera called an “underdog mentality” to the Washington Commanders as their starter with Wentz injured, and Heinicke’s philosophy on playing football has shifted their identity on offense with him in charge.

“Two years ago I was out of the league, so every time I go out on that field it’s an opportunity for me to go play and play like it’s my last time,” Heinicke said. “I go out there and play like it’s my last game. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but that’s just how I play.”

That attitude has endeared him to teammates, many of whom Heinicke embraced in the locker room after beating Green Bay 23-21 Sunday in his first start of the season.

Owning mistakes such as his pick-6 and a fumble that would have been a Packers touchdown if not for an illegal contact penalty downfield away from the play only ratchets up the respect for Heinicke.

“Came to us, ‘Hey, that’s on me,’” left tackle Charles Leno said. “We said: ‘It’s all good. Everybody makes mistakes.’ … He’s a resilient player. He shook it right off.”

That resilience, which will be put to the test again Sunday when Washington visits the Indianapolis Colts in a surprise matchup of Heinicke vs. Sam Ehlinger instead of Wentz against Matt Ryan and his previous team, comes from the unheralded background of a QB who was an FCS star at Old Dominion before being undrafted and bouncing around the league in reserve and practice squad roles.

When Washington’s front office called Heinicke to be the team’s quarantine quarterback in December 2020, he was out of football and taking college classes online. An injury to Alex Smith thrust him into the starting role in the wild-card round against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Heinicke starred with 306 yards passing, 46 more rushing, a touchdown throw and a memorable 8-yard run into the end zone that concluded with him diving over the pylon in the left corner with little regard for his health.

Sounds about right.

But Heinicke got a contract and 16 more games last season, including 15 starts, after Ryan Fitzpatrick was injured in the first half of Week 1. He’s a different quarterback now based on that experience, and players around him see that.

“He used to take a lot of big hits,” top wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “And I just think you can tell his maturation process is continuing to grow the more reps he gets.”

Barring injury, which Heinicke did a good job of avoiding in 2021, it’s his job for at least the next four games with Wentz on injured reserve after undergoing surgery for a broken right ring finger.

The Commanders, now 3-4 and with some winnable games ahead but also last in an unexpectedly strong NFC East, are nowhere near ready to turn to rookie Sam Howell to see what the fifth-round pick can do.

They are more than comfortable with what Heinicke can do differently than Wentz: extend plays with his legs and make things happen while also settling for some more short-yardage, sure-thing completions to keep drives alive.

“The identity is what it is with Taylor in there,” Rivera said. “It’s a different identity obviously with Carson in there. Taylor has a little bit of an athletic knack that can stretch and elongate plays and give him an opportunity to improvise a little bit.”

That, combined with Washington rushing for a season-high 166 yards, is a recipe to win with Heinicke at quarterback. Asked Monday about what might happen if Heinicke proves to be more successful running the offense than Wentz, Rivera said he’d take it one game at a time and figure that out when it’s necessary.

That matches his QB who spends all week thinking only about the next game that could be his last and rarely about those who doubt his ability to play in the NFL.

“I don’t care about the doubters,” Heinicke said. “I don’t care what they have to say. I care about the people who believe in me, and I want to prove them right.”

NOTE: Rivera missed practice Wednesday to attend to a personal situation in California with his mother, according to a team spokesperson. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio ran practice in Rivera’s absence. … Heinicke was listed as a full participant in practice with a calf injury.

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AP National Writer Howard Fendrich contributed.

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