There’s no doubt that Taylor Heinicke has become a fan favorite in Washington. Commanders coach Ron Rivera seems to have a soft spot for him, too. And he had a lot of support from his teammates when he stepped in for the injured Carson Wentz.
All of that is significant. It works in Heinicke’s favor.
But none of that might matter very soon.
Time is most definitely running out on the 29-year-old Heinicke as Washington’s starting quarterback, as he heads into a very important showdown against the 8-0 Eagles in Philadelphia on Monday night. It’s not just that Wentz, the QB he replaced, is “progressing well” from his broken finger, according to Rivera, and could return as soon as next Sunday. Heinicke also needs to keep the 4-5 Commanders alive in an NFC East that is quickly getting away from them.
And he has to start playing better if he wants to convince Rivera to let him keep the job.
For now, Rivera seems to be in Heinicke’s corner, though it’s obvious he has no choice. Wentz has another week to spend on injured reserve and Rivera was coy on Thursday about when he’ll be ready to return.
“We’ll see,” Rivera said. “He’s looking good, going through his rehab, doing the things he supposed to.”
And when asked if Wentz would be the starter as soon as his rehab is complete, Rivera said, “You’re most certainly ahead of yourself. I told you guys, we’ll play the game, and I’ll decide when it’s time.”
That, of course, is a non-answer that wasn’t exactly a full-throated endorsement of his current starter. Of course, earlier in the week he defended Heinicke, even after his poor performance against the Vikings last Sunday, when he literally threw away the Commanders’ chance to win.
“Well, I mean, it all just depends on the perception,” Rivera said of Heinicke’s performance. “I mean, that seems to be one of the big things is everybody’s perception on stuff. Truth of the matter is, for the most part Taylor played well.”
That truth certainly is in the eye of the beholder, because it’s hard to find an argument that Heinicke actually “played well.” Heinicke completed just 15 of 28 passes for 149 yards. And 49 of those yards came on a miracle touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel that would’ve been picked off if an official hadn’t tripped up Vikings safety Harrison Smith. And no official could save Heinicke from the pass that sailed high over 6-foot-6 tight end Logan Thomas with 7:56 remaining, setting the Vikings up for their go-ahead touchdown.
None of that is good. And really, Heinicke was only marginally better in his previous two starts, even though both of those were wins. In fact, his numbers have been remarkably Wentz-like. Heinicke has completed 63% of his passes and has averaged 209.7 yards, 1.7 touchdowns and one interception per game. Wentz, in his six starts before breaking his finger, completed 62.1% of his passes and averaged 248.2 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
That’s basically the same. And so is the offensive output for the Commanders under both. They averaged 17 points and 320.3 yards in Wentz’s starts, and now 19 points and 329.7 yards under Heinicke. It seems the Commanders are what they are, no matter which quarterback is at the helm.
And if that’s the case, there is no good argument for keeping Heinicke at the helm when Wentz is ready. If the Commanders lose in Philadelphia, there’s a good chance they will end up 3.5 games behind the closest team in their division with seven games left to play. And even though they’d be closer in the race for the final NFC playoff spot, their odds would be increasingly long.
Which means Rivera has to consider other factors. One should be that Wentz has the bigger upside. He’s more talented and has a bigger arm. He topped 300 yards in three of his six starts. He threw four touchdowns in a win over Jacksonville on Opening Day. Yes, he has a penchant for big mistakes in big spots — just like Heinicke. But just a few weeks ago, Rivera insisted that Wentz’s biggest issue was that he was still learning the offense. In other words, he just needed time.
And don’t forget that the Commanders have invested a lot in Wentz. It cost them a couple of third-round picks to acquire him from the Colts in the offseason, and he’s using up $28.3 million of their salary cap space this season. He’s also under contract for two more years, and though none of it is guaranteed — meaning they can cut him after the season — they didn’t bring him in thinking only about this season.
So they need to find out if Wentz is worth bringing back for 2023.
By now they know that Heinicke is not. He started 15 games for the Commanders last season and their braintrust was so unimpressed that they spent the offseason trying to get every quarterback available on the open market. They know that Heinicke has moxie and is capable of electric moments that thrill their crowd. But they also saw how awful he was last December and January as the Commanders fell apart with a playoff berth on the line.
Taylor Heinicke, Terry McLaurin after comeback over Colts
Taylor Heinicke and Terry McLaurin spoke with FOX Sports’ Jen Hale after a stunning victory for the Commanders over Indianapolis in Week 8. “I dreamed of being in this position,” Heinicke said.
Heinicke is most definitely not their future. Wentz at least has a chance to be part of their short-term plan. He’s also more capable of carrying their offense when necessary, despite his many flaws. And they might need that if they’re somehow able to hang around the playoff race.
That’s why Monday’s game is so big for Heinicke. He’s running out of chances to show he really can rise to the occasion. He can’t just be what he is if he wants to keep playing. He has to be something more. That’s not going to be easy against an Eagles defense that ranks third in the NFL and notably pummeled Wentz with nine sacks and 17 hits back in Week 3.
But that’s the deal. Heinicke has to step up and show Rivera that he really can play above his head and carry his team to an unlikely victory. He has to prove he’s the answer this franchise has been looking for.
Because if he can’t, he might not get another chance.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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