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STEVE DeSHAZO: Even in defeat, Washington's Heinicke proves he's a keeper

STEVE DeSHAZO: Even in defeat, Washington's Heinicke proves he's a keeper

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Buccaneers Washington Football

It was his first playoff game, but Taylor Heinicke played like a veteran.

LANDOVER, Md.—If we learned anything from Saturday night’s 31–23 wild card playoff loss to Tampa Bay, it’s that Washington should not spend a first-round draft pick on a quarterback next spring.

The franchise’s recent history is littered with high picks who didn’t pan out. Heath Shuler, picked No. 3 overall in 1994, was outplayed by Gus Frerrotte, who was drafted five rounds later.

A similar scenario played out in 2012. After a brilliant rookie season, Robert Griffin III flamed out and lost his job to Kirk Cousins, chosen fourth in the same draft.

Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell and, most recently, Dwayne Haskins all failed to live up to the hype as well. And it’s hard to imagine that Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall draft pick by San Francisco, would have given Washington a better chance to upset the Buccaneers Saturday night than Taylor Heinicke did.

That’s the same Taylor Heinicke who was unemployed and studying for a graduate degree at Old Dominion University just a few months ago. A journeyman quarterback with one career NFL start whom no team wanted before the coronavirus pandemic made it imperative for franchises to have an insurance policy.

Injuries and Haskins’ inconsistency gave Heinicke his chance in D.C. And when healthy Saturday night, he gave Washington a puncher’s chance.

"I'll take No. 4 [Heinicke] every day of the week and twice on Sunday," receiver Terry McLaurin said. "I hope we can be teammates in the future."

Heinicke didn’t quite match Tom Brady’s numbers Saturday night. (Who ever has?) But even after injuring his left (non-throwing) shoulder on a sack early in the fourth quarter, he kept his underdog team competitive and put a scare into the Buccaneers.

Never was that more obvious than the series just before his injury, when Heinicke channeled his inner Doug Flutie on a spectacular 8-yard touchdown run. Three different Buccaneers had a chance to sack him, but he escaped and scored by diving from beyond the 5 to touch the ball to the end zone corner marker.

The play earned the endorsement of Chase Young, the likely NFL defensive rookie of the year, who gleefully pointed to the back of Heinicke’s jersey for NBC’s cameras.

And after receiving treatment on the sideline, Heinicke capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive with a perfectly thrown 11-yard TD pass to Steven Sims Jr. in the corner of the end zone.

Heinicke passed for 306 yards on the night--and could have had plenty more if a wide-open Cam Sims hadn’t dropped a pass after getting behind the Tampa Bay defense on Washington’s second offensive snap of the game.

He also ran for 46 yards and his touchdown—adding an ingredient that Washington’s offense has lacked since Griffin’s dazzling rookie season. It’s clear that Smith, whose sore calf on his surgically repaired left leg prevented him from playing, wouldn’t have been nearly as mobile.

Heinicke’s performance earned praise from Brady, who was briefly his teammate in New England. It certainly didn’t surprise Bobby Wilder, who coached Heinicke at ODU.

“What we just learned about Taylor: He can play in the NFL!” Wilder tweeted. “@WashingtonNFL sign this an immediately after the game win or lose! He can play. Reminder: He has had 2 weeks of practice!”

Wilder is right. Heinicke, who previously played for Washington coach Ron Rivera in Carolina, can be had at a deep discount to compete next summer with Smith (whose contract will take a huge bite out of Washington’s 2021 salary cap) and Kyle Allen, who’s currently recovering from his own broken leg.

That would allow Rivera to use his first-round pick on one of his rebuilding team’s other needs, like left tackle, cornerback or safety.

Said Rivera: "The young man earned an opportunity."

Heinicke undoubtedly had the element of surprise in his favor Saturday night. No one knew until a couple of hours before kickoff that Heinicke would start, and the Bucs probably spent more time preparing for Smith than for Heinicke, who has little game tape to study.

Still, you have to perform when the lights are on, and Heinicke did just that while competing with the greatest quarterback of all time. That’s got to be worth something.

Asked what though he proved, Heinicke said: "That I deserve to be in this league a little longer. The real world is not fun. It's not as fun as this."

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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