At this time last year, very few people in the D.C. area knew who Taylor Heinicke was. Now, one year later, the 28-year-old is the Washington Football Team's starting quarterback with the fate of the Burgundy and Gold's 2021 season largely in his hands.
On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Scott Turner was asked a simple question about his starting quarterback: what was the initial evaluation of Heinicke -- an undrafted player who almost called it quits last fall -- that prevented the QB from being drafted and sticking on a roster for the first few years of his career.
In response, Turner gave a long, insightful answer about the reality talent evaluators have on players throughout the league.
"People for whatever reason, they fall back to their original evaluation on people," Turner said. "So [Heinicke is] always going to be seen as an undrafted guy until he continues to do the things he's been doing, but he's got to do it over time. He can have five great games. And if he has one bad game, it's like, oh, well, here's the undrafted guy that everybody knows."
After bouncing around practice squads and an XFL stint, Heinicke was out of football last fall and taking classes at Old Dominion when he got a call from Washington. Heinicke was originally signed as the club's "quarantine QB." But, one thing after another happened, and the former ODU star quickly got his shot.
With Alex Smith injured and unable to play in Washington's playoff game against Tampa Bay, Heinicke was thrust into the starting spot and came just a few plays away from leading WFT to a playoff upset over the eventual Super Bowl champions. His effort earned him a two-year deal to remain in Washington.
Heinicke is just one of many examples of undrafted players beating the odds and making an impact on NFL clubs. The initial evaluations of the quarterback were wrong: despite coming from a small school and not having the best physical skills, Heinicke can play.
There's also the other side of it, though: players who had high initial evaluations that didn't pan out.
On Thursday, Washington head coach Ron Rivera was asked why many talent evaluators across the NFL struggle to move on from the first impressions of players. He responded with the truth, but something a lot of evaluators would never want to admit.
“People don’t want to be wrong," Rivera said. "I mean, that's the truth of the matter. At some point you have to admit a mistake and people don't want to admit that. I think that's one of the things that's unfair about it. It goes back to the old saying, you treat everybody fair, but you don't treat everybody the same. And that's what people look at, unfortunately.
"You have to be willing in certain circumstances to say: ‘We were wrong. We made a mistake,' and move on from it and work on something else. That’s why some people stick with first and second-rounders a little bit longer than they need to, or they should, as opposed to all of a sudden something bad happens in a free agent is tossed. That’s the explanation.”
Washington first-hand experienced this last year with Dwayne Haskins. A 2019 first-round pick, Haskins was named the team's Week 1 starter -- Rivera was unable to have a true QB competition between Haskins and Kyle Allen due to the truncated training camp -- but quickly played his way to the bench in four games.
When Haskins got a second chance to play later in the season, he continued to make the same mistakes that he was originally benched for. Later in the year, Haskins violated COVID-19 protocols and then proceeded to turn in a terrible performance the following weekend against Carolina. One day later, Rivera made the decision to release him before the second year of his rookie contract ended.
"We went through a little bit of that last year; and fortunately with the support of ownership, we were able to go ahead and move from some guys that in spite of their situations, their draft status, we were able to, like I said, make some moves and hopefully make good moves so that we can go forward," Rivera said Thursday.
When Rivera first arrived in Washington, one thing he said he wanted to learn from his tenure as the Panthers' boss was not holding onto veterans too long. Rivera felt that his decision to keep some of Carolina's aging players on its roster turned what was once a Super Bowl contender into a middle-of-the-pack team before he was let go.
One example of him putting that in action occurred this offseason when Rivera made the difficult decision to part ways with longtime tackle Morgan Moses, who had started every game for Washington since 2015. It was a hard choice for the coach, but Washington had just spent a second-round pick on Texas tackle Sam Cosmi. Rivera has preached wanting to get younger, and Moses turned 30 in March.
"We have an opportunity to get some young guys on the field," Rivera said in May. "We went out and brought in a veteran left tackle [Charles Leno]. So, feel very comfortable with those decisions because of the players we have on the roster right now.”
Now, when making roster decisions, Rivera is focused on one main thing: how much can each player help contribute?
"The thing that I've learned more so than anything else is really it's about the contribution," Rivera said. "Can the guy help and how does he help us win? That’s probably the more important thing."