Football Team

Heinicke off to best start by a WFT QB in decades

Football Team

Robert Griffin III never did it. Kirk Cousins didn't either. Neither did Alex Smith or Mark Brunell.

No, you would have to further back than that to find a Washington quarterback who was off to as good of a start to any season that Taylor Heinicke is this year. With eight passing touchdowns through Week 4, Heinicke has the most of any Washington quarterback to this point in a season since Brad Johnson in 1999.

Johnson had nine, which is tied for the most in franchise history to this point with Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, who also tossed nine touchdowns in four games to begin the 1968 season. Keep in mind Heinicke didn't begin the year as the starter. He replaced an injured Ryan Fitzpatrick during a Week 1 loss to the Chargers.

Washington fans of a certain age will remember that 1999 season fondly. It was the highest-ranked offense the franchise has had in any season since winning their last Super Bowl after the 1991 campaign. They were second in the NFL both in scoring and yardage.

That fun era of high-powered offense was also very short lived. Johnson was let go by Washington, only to catch on with the Tampa Buccaneers where he won a Super Bowl in 2002.

Whether Heinicke can do this for an entire season is difficult to predict. But he has not only filled in admirably for Fitzpatrick, he has by some measures been one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Heinicke is currently tied for 11th (with Aaron Rodgers) among NFL quarterbacks in passing touchdowns, eighth in completion percentage (69.5) and tied for 10th in yards per attempt (8.1). 

 

Heinicke looks even better if you review some of the advanced numbers. He's seventh in touchdown percentage (6.8), third in on-target pass percentage (82.6) and he has the eighth-lowest bad throw percentage (13.0), per Football Reference.

Going back to where he ranks in franchise history, his completion percentage is the best of all-time so far, barely edging Griffin III's in 2012 (69.35). And only three have had higher quarterback ratings than him: Johnson (119.9, 1999), Joe Theismann (116.1, 1982) and Cousins (107.6, 2017).

Heinicke, though, is comparing favorably to his peers even in this era of inflated passing numbers. His eight touchdowns so far put him on pace for 32 in a 16-game season. That would have ranked ninth last year. This season, he's on track for 34 with the season expanded to 17 games.

That puts him on pace to set a franchise record, as noted by my colleague Mitch Tischler. The current benchmark is 31, set by Jurgensen in 1967.

Heinicke is likely to be tested in different ways by opposing defenses soon. According to Football Reference, he has only the 25th-highest pressure percentage among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 100 passes this year. He's only been blitzed 26 times (25 quarterbacks have seen more) and has only been sacked three times.

Between the protection he's getting from the offensive line, and Heinicke's ability to get the ball out quickly, he isn't being pressured nearly as often as his peers. Perhaps that will change and, if/when it does, he will need to adjust.

But so far Heinicke is performing well beyond just a feel-good story. He isn't just exceeding the expectations commensurate for an undersized backup who wasn't drafted out of a mid-major school and spent time in the XFL. 

He has been much more than that, at least so far.