When pressed into emergency action, Taylor Heinicke has delivered for the Washington Football Team. On Thursday, eight months after giving the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers a run for their money in place of the injured Alex Smith, the veteran quarterback made his first start for Ryan Fitzpatrick, overcoming a late interception to lead a comeback win over the Giants. Asked afterward whether he believes he’s earned the right to be Washington’s starting QB for the rest of 2021, he was clear: “I do.”
But is Heinicke right? Should one win officially dethrone Fitzpatrick, signed to a one-year, $10 million deal this offseason, as the top signal-caller? All indications are that the latter is set to miss about eight weeks while recovering from the hip injury he suffered in Week 1, so he could still be available for the second half of the season.
If we know one thing, it’s that Heinicke’s teammates are fully confident he can start. Pass rusher Chase Young said before Thursday’s win — rather absurdly, but notably — that the journeyman could start for any team in the NFL. And tight end Logan Thomas said this week that players have never viewed Heinicke as a backup, considering him more of a “1B” to Fitzpatrick throughout the offseason.
In terms of actual reliability, it’s also not crazy to suggest Heinicke, 28, is on nearly equal footing as Fitzpatrick, 38.
Fitzpatrick, for example, was a clear upgrade on Alex Smith because of his lively arm and ageless energy. But he was always a risky gamble considering his penchant for turnovers and extensive injury history; he hasn’t played a full season since 2015. Heinicke, meanwhile, is unproven with just 10 career games under his belt but at least appears to boast the requisite mobility and confidence to keep Washington afloat.
“You don’t want to tie yourself to Ryan Fitzpatrick for more than probably a year,” John Breech said on the “Pick Six NFL Podcast” after Will Brinson suggested Heinicke himself is an upgrade on Fitz at QB. “You wanna have Heinicke in there if you can … I think he earned the starting job for the rest of the year. If Ryan Fitzpatrick is gonna be out eight weeks, you don’t need to give him the ball in November.”
If Washington remains competitive through October, that’s absolutely right. Heinicke has already won support from his locker room, not to mention a staff that inked him to a two-year extension in February and then publicly called him a candidate for QB1 duties in the offseason. Another string of solid, winning performances, and Washington will have practically no choice but to reserve Fitzpatrick for the bench — a place from which he’s done some of his best work, by the way.
And yet that still remains a big “if.” Because as inspiring as Heinicke has been, Washington’s schedule does the QB no favors over the next two months. Let’s say Fitzpatrick is available to return eight weeks from his injury, so Week 10 against the Buccaneers, on Nov. 14. That leaves seven games between now and then:
How many of those games are clearly winnable? Two? Maybe three? Atlanta looked dead on arrival in Week 1, and the jury is mostly still out on teams like the Broncos, Saints and Packers after one week of action. But that’s a pretty tough slate. A 2-4 stretch would put Washington at 3-5 going into Week 10 against the Bucs, with big games against the Seahawks (Week 12) and Cowboys (Week 14) looming. Heinicke may very well be up to the task, but it’s a reminder that we’ve still got lots of football left. It’s one thing to top the poorly coached Giants at home; it’s another to knock off a slew of playoff contenders over the course of two months.