ASHBURN -- Two hands are needed to count the number of quarterback battles the Washington Commanders have had over the past couple of decades. As the organization's search for a franchise signal-caller carries on, a third hand might be needed, in fact.
Entering the 2022 season, though, the Commanders' QB pecking order is crystal clear. Carson Wentz, whom the team acquired by trade via Indianapolis in March, is the starter. Taylor Heinicke, who started 16 games for Washington a season ago, is the backup. 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell, a developmental project, is expected to be the third-stringer, with undrafted free agent Cole Kelley vying for a practice squad spot.
For Heinicke, the current position he's in is a familiar one. Last year, the 29-year-old entered training camp as the No. 2 QB behind long-time journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. Heinicke didn't sit on the bench for long, though, as Fitzpatrick suffered a season-ending hip injury just 16 offensive snaps into the team's Week 1 loss to the Chargers. Heinicke was thrust into action and never looked back.
Now, with a full year of starting experience under his belt, Heinicke feels he understands what it takes to be successful in the NFL now. That, he believes, will allow him to perform when his number is called upon -- whenever that might be.
"[My mindset is] kind of the same thing this year. I think the only difference is I have experience now having started 16 games," Heinicke said. "I feel like I know what it takes to be a good quarterback, know what it takes to win. So I think that's the biggest difference from last year to this year. But again, this situation is no different than any other year I've been in. It's kind of just clawing my way in, earning that spot on the team and go from there. The biggest thing I do -- you've heard me say this -- is control what I can control, go out there, do my best and see what happens."
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For any quarterback, moving from the starting gig to the backup job can be a tough adjustment. Heinicke assumed that role for almost the entirety of 2021 and experienced some success, too. He led the team to seven wins and, had a couple of games gone in a different direction, Washington could have been in the playoffs. During a recent appearance on the Bussin' With the Boys podcast, Heinicke admitted that the team's Week 17 loss to Philadelphia -- a game Washington needed to keep its playoff hopes alive -- still bugs him.
Since the 2021 season concluded, both head coach Ron Rivera and Martin Mayhew have gone on the record to praise Heinicke for his overall performance last season. Yet, the Commanders' brass made it clear early on this winter that the franchise was looking to upgrade at the sport's most important position. That roughly two-month-long stretch concluded with Washington's trade for Wentz on March 9.
"I knew we were going to go out and get someone, whether it was through the draft or free agency," Heinicke said. "When you know that, you kind of just sit back and wait. You don't stress over it. You know it's going to happen, there's nothing you can do about it. What I did was kept on training, trying to be the best me I can be. And again, like I said earlier, I just try to control what I can control. When you start reading all those things, that's when you get in your own head and stuff like that. I try to put all that away, do my own thing and get better from there."
Heinicke was aware of the team's desire to improve at quarterback earlier this offseason, but specifically made it a point not to focus too much on it. Instead, he channeled that energy towards training and improving his own game, honing in on strengthening his arm and honing in his mechanics.
A native of the Atlanta area, Heinicke has spent the entirety of his professional career training in Georgia during the offseason. Last year, Heinicke added 15 pounds of muscle with the goal of improving his durability. That offseason training ended up working out well, as he was able to stay healthy for a full NFL season.
This spring, though, the quarterback decided to switch up his training regiment. Heinicke flew out to Los Angeles to train with 3DQB's Adam Dedeaux, a renowned quarterback coach who's worked with multiple NFL passers, including Wentz. Out in California, Heinicke feels the work he did "helped [his] game quite a bit." In addition to improving his arm strength, weight transfer, hip rotation and shoulder positioning were all focuses as well.
"Going out to LA this year was huge for me. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn't even think of," Heinicke said. "[Adam] taught me a lot. ... It's kind of just the little things he pointed out that make a huge difference. I'm very happy I went out there."
Even though he's no longer Washington's QB1, Heinicke has continued to train like he's the starter. As the 2021 season proved, he's only a play away from being elevated into that role again.
"Every guy on the team will tell you the same thing: you go out there and practice like you're the starter, just in case," Heinicke said. "The NFL is crazy, man, everyone gets hurt. So at any given play, your number is going to be called. You just have to make sure you're ready. Thank god last year at that time, I was ready."
Throughout the offseason, Washington's coaching staff has made it clear Heinicke still has a vital role on the team. That was reiterated after the trade for Wentz and the drafting of Howell. Rivera echoed a similar sentiment once again this week.
"Taylor's been the pro that we knew he would be," Rivera said Tuesday. "He's been nothing but a supportive guy and that's exactly who he is. And when he's had his opportunity, he's come out and played and gave us everything he can. It's just like now, with Carson here, he's assumed the role. He understands the role, but he also wants to continue to compete, which he does. And he competes out there every day. That's the kind of guy he is. He's the right kind of player to be here and be part of what we're trying to do.”
Tight end Logan Thomas -- who's been present for the entirety of the offseason program but has not resumed football activities as he continues to rehab a torn ACL -- is among those who have plenty of faith in Heinicke, should he be thrust into action.
"Taylor, we're getting a guy that's played a lot of football last year for us, who won a lot of big games for us, and quite honestly, a couple of games away and a couple of playmakers being injured away from having a chance to go into the playoffs again," Thomas said. "So I feel comfortable with whoever's behind center."
Heinicke enters his third season -- his second full season -- in Washington with plenty of confidence, especially with a year of starting experience under his belt. Yet, he knows regardless of how well he may perform during minicamp, training camp or the preseason, the Commanders are now Wentz's team.
"You look at the NFL, at the end of the day, it's kind of a business," Heinicke said. "If you're paying somebody $30 million and someone else $2 million, you're paying this guy $30 million to play. Carson's a great quarterback. You see it through OTAs and minicamp. I hope he goes out and succeeds. My job is to back him up. Hopefully he's on his deal, help him out in whatever way I can. If for some reason he goes down, I'll be ready to play. That's how I look at it. But again, the NFL is a business. If you're paying a guy a lot of money, you're paying him for a reason: it's for him to play."