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'Redshirt rookie' - Rivera, Heinicke agree on the right term for the QB

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Taylor Heinicke and Ron Rivera

Taylor Heinicke did not follow a normal path to his first season as an NFL starter. In fact, he wasn't even supposed to be the starter. 

Rewind back to Week 1 for Washington and all the excitement was based on Ryan Fitzpatrick running the Burgundy and Gold offense. That lasted less than a half before Fitzpatrick injured his hip and Heinicke took over. 

Four months later, there's been no sign of Fitzpatrick, and in good times and in bad, it's been the Heinicke show. 

The results have largely been solid for Heinicke, who's got 16 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while completing about 67% of his passes through 11 games.

There were rough patches - particularly a four-game losing streak in October where Heinicke threw six interceptions and lost a fumble.

There have also been good stretches.

Since Washington's Week 9 bye, Heinicke has thrown five touchdowns to just one interception and he's completing about 77% of his passes.

More importantly, Washington has won all three games and now finds itself in playoff position. 

"Each week you see something better from him," Washington coach Ron Rivera said of his quarterback. "I know there was a run when it was tough, that four-game skid, but remember we missed our whole right side of the offensive line."

The Washington offense was missing many weapons during the four-game losing streak, many of which are back now as Rivera's squad looks to continue the winning streak this Sunday in Las Vegas.

Heinicke is not a simple quarterback to evaluate though. 

 

At 28 he's not particularly young, but for the position, he's certainly inexperienced. 

"He's never really had any continuity in his career," Rivera explained.

Undrafted out of Old Dominion in 2015, he signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings. Notable at the time, current Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner worked on that Vikings staff.

From there Heinicke bounced around the league, making practice squads and landing on the end of rosters with the Texans, Patriots and Panthers. He made his first career start in 2018 in Carolina, but he got hurt and threw three interceptions in that game. 

It wasn't until last January when he got another chance to start, and quickly became a cult figure in Washington, going blow for blow with Tom Brady in a close playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. 

Washington brought back Heinicke this offseason on a two-year deal, but once they signed Fitzpatrick to a $10 million contract, the QB order was obvious. 

Well, now it's Heinicke's job. At least for this season.

Which brings things back to the tricky question of evaluation. 

If Heinicke was a late-round draft pick, there would be parades down Pennsylvania Avenue considering his success. But he's not; he's a 28-year old journeyman that last played in the XFL before Washington picked him up a year ago. 

For Rivera, that's all part of trying to figure out what he's got in Heinicke.

"He’s kind of that senior rookie to me," the coach said. 

What about a redshirt rookie?

"Yes. I like that."

Redshirt players in college get to sit and watch, and learn. That rarely happens in the NFL, but Heinicke has had plenty of chances to sit and watch, and learn. 

"I'm just getting more comfortable, and that comes with experience," Heinicke said following Washington's Monday night win over Seattle.

"I'm still kind of a rookie. It’s my first time really starting."

Some critics point to his age and suggest that means Heinicke will never emerge as a bonafide starter. That may prove to be true, but there are plenty of examples that suggest otherwise.  

Tony Romo did not make an NFL start until he was 26. He sat and watched for two years, and was also undrafted. Romo made four Pro Bowls and started six playoff games. 

Jeff Garcia did not make an NFL start until he was 29. He played in Canada for years after going undrafted before he got a shot with the 49ers. Garcia made four Pro Bowls and started six playoff games. 

The point here isn't to suggest that Heinicke will have the career of Romo or Garcia. The point, however, is to suggest that getting a later start to a quarterbacking career does not exclude the possibility of prolonged success. 

There's another example that will hit much closer to home for Washington fans.

Joe Theismann did not make an NFL start until he was 27. He sat his first two seasons in the league and did not start a full 16-game season until he was 30. Eventually, Theismann won an MVP Award and a Super Bowl. He's a Washington legend. 

 

Again, the point here isn't to suggest that Heinicke will become Theismann.

Heinicke, like Romo and Garcia, played college football at a small school and wasn't drafted. Theismann was a star at Notre Dame and drafted by the Dolphins before playing in Canada prior to the NFL.

The point is to suggest others have gone down similar paths to Heinicke and found great success, even here in D.C.

It remains entirely unclear what Heinicke will become in the NFL. He's proven that he belongs in the league, but is he a franchise quarterback? What that answer becomes is largely up to him.

As for this season, it's all still an evaluation period. An evaluation period that could finish with a playoff spot.

Asked what he thought of the term "redshirt rookie," Heinicke smiled. 

"That sounds good."