Alex Smith is no longer a member of the Washington Football Team, but the recently retired quarterback is still plenty fond of his old employer.
Before Week 1, Smith -- now an ESPN analyst -- called Washington the "class of the NFC East" and said he believed Ryan Fitzpatrick would have a big year. Now, even with Fitzpatrick out for a considerable amount of time, Smith is still high on his former team and its new starting QB, Taylor Heinicke.
"I absolutely think Taylor could lead the team to a division title, without a doubt," Smith said on Monday via Zoom in a promotional appearance for Gatorade Gx.
Smith and Heinicke shared Washington's locker room for several weeks in 2020 after the latter was brought in by Ron Rivera on December 8 as Washington's 'quarantine QB.' Since Heinicke had spent time under offensive coordinator Scott Turner in both Minnesota and Carolina, he already had an understanding of the offensive system. The move made perfect sense.
"He would try to stay away from us. In meetings, he would sit in the very back of the room by himself because Coach Rivera had kind of strict quarantine rules with him trying not to be around the other QBs if in case something happened," Smith said.
Heinicke, who was taking classes at Old Dominion when he got the call, clearly made the most of his opportunity. With Smith unable to start Washington's NFC Wild Card game against Tampa Bay due to injury, Heinicke was given the opportunity. He shined, throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in a narrow loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Smith, who recalled first hearing about Heinicke back when he was still in Kansas City and Heinicke was an undrafted rookie free agent with the Minnesota Vikings, believes that Heinicke has always been talented enough to play in the NFL.
"I don't think the talent is the question at all with Taylor," Smith said. "It really hasn't been over the course of his career. I remember hearing about Taylor when he was a young player in Minnesota, just kind of all the positives about him, that he did have a bright future. To see him come in off the couch last year and just the way he handled himself, I think he realized that. I think he's grateful for the opportunity, but he's got a ton of talent."
Heinicke's effort against Tampa Bay earned him a two-year deal this offseason to remain in Washington. The Burgundy and Gold also signed free-agent veteran Fitzpatrick, who entered the season as the starter. But after the 38-year-old injured his hip in Week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers. It's now Heinicke's team for the foreseeable future.
In his first game as Washington's starter, Heinicke led Washington to a thrilling victory over the New York Giants on Sunday night. For the most part, Heinicke shined, as he finished the game with 336 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw a crucial late-game interception but was quickly given the chance to redeem himself. Heinicke did just that, leading Washington on a game-winning drive as Dustin Hopkins nailed a second-chance 43-yard field goal as time expired for the victory.
When Heinicke excelled against the Buccaneers in January, a lot of the plays he made were with his legs. This past week, Heinicke didn't nearly rely on his athleticism as much and played "within himself," something that Smith really liked to see.
"I think watching him Thursday night and to be honest, he just kind of played within himself and played amazing," Smith said. "I think that's what I would say about him, that he has that kind of ability."
Since Heinicke arrived in Washington, Smith has been impressed with his command and confidence in the huddle. That's something Smith believes is a product of Heinicke's experience in Turner's system.
"He's been with Scott Turner for a long time," Smith said. "He knew the system so well, knew it in and out. And I think you could tell that when he stepped in the huddle. Yeah. That's such a big part of playing quarterback, knowing what you're doing, being confident, decisive in your decisions. And I think that's what we're seeing from Taylor, that he is very confident what he's doing out there. He's cutting it loose, playing fast. And I think that's such an important thing to do as a quarterback."
After two weeks, Washington is tied atop the NFC East with Dallas and Philadelphia. But in order to repeat as division champions, it looks like it will take a few more Washington victories than last season's 7-9 record. Both the Cowboys and Eagles have flashed, while Washington has one of the league's toughest schedules.
For now, Washington is Heinicke's team. And Smith is excited to see how far he can take them, even in a division that he says is better than outsiders think.
"I think the NFC East is a lot better than people give it credit for, especially this year," Smith said. "But I'm excited for Washington and Taylor."